Elizabeth Acevado continues to forge a path of excellence in the YA world with her newest novel, With the Fire on High. The story of Afro-Puerto Rican teen mum Emoni Santiago, With the Fire on High explores motherhood, consent, trust, heritage, and, most importantly, food.
The story starts on the first day of senior year and carries us all the way through graduation. Emoni is used to making tough decisions ever since she got pregnant in freshman year. She spends her time caring for her daughter, Emma (whom she lovingly refers to as Babygirl), and working shifts at the local Burger Joint to help her Abuela pay the bills. Her relationship with her father, who lives in Puerto Rico, is complicated, and all Emoni has of her African-American mother are stories and recipes emailed from her aunt. More than anything, Emoni loves cooking meals that have the power to make you feel something.
Full disclosure: I am hook, line, and sinker in love with this book. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it, and Emoni’s passion for food and no-nonsense approach to life have already begun to inform my own recipes and my own choices. As someone who works in the food industry, I could wax poetic about this book for the food descriptions alone. More than just making your mouth water, Acevedo’s ability to convey the joy and frustrations around creating and consuming food is something I will carry with me for a long time.
Beyond food, one of the themes that Acevedo masters in this book is consent. Showing more than just the ability to say no to an unwanted sexual experience, Emoni demonstrates a level of self-trust and self-knowledge that I wish I’d had examples of when I was a teen. While Emoni isn’t immune to uncertainty, she’s had to learn the hard way to disregard other people’s opinions of her. Instead, she’s learned to ask for what she wants and to be clear about what she doesn’t.
Acevedo relates a teenage experience in which sex and sexuality are very clearly present, and yet she shows a facet of that experience that I’ve found to be rare in books. One of the major subplots is the relationship Emoni develops with a boy at school. While sexuality is certainly not off the table in its development, it also doesn’t eclipse the other important ways we relate to one another. Acevedo does a wonderful job of walking the line between childish silliness and adult maturity that perfectly encapsulated the feelings of senior year for me.
Another perspective With the Fire on High gives is the importance of post-secondary education. A lot of people have opinions on what Emoni should do after high school, but she must figure out what the best choice is for her, especially since she’s a mother. She knows from the get-go that she wants her career and education to focus on food, but the how and where are harder to pin down. Is attending a culinary arts program actually necessary when she’s a wonderful cook already? Would it be better to go straight to working in a restaurant and learn about food that way? These are questions that are important to ask, especially when post-secondary programs have the added challenge of being expensive whereas working in a restaurant sends you home with a paycheck.
Though it certainly didn’t shy away from asking tough questions, With the Fire on High was the kind of book that left me feeling filled up. I knew before I was halfway through that this would be a story I’d return to again and again. It’s the kind of book I can close my eyes and remember just from the feeling it gave me, or rather, the taste – velvety, fresh, and bittersweet.