Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel With the Fire on High tells the story of Emoni Santiago, a teenage mother, as she navigates her senior year of high school. She has natural skill in the kitchen, but when she finds out her new culinary arts class offers a weeklong trip to Spain, she hesitates. She isn’t sure how she will juggle the fundraising along with her part-time job, taking care of her daughter Emma, dealing with her family, and grappling with her burgeoning crush on a new kid in school.
Emoni is a well-written, realistic-feeling protagonist. She’s funny, smart, passionate, and yet also uncertain what her future will look like. I also loved her ’Buela, her daughter Emma, her friend Angelica, and her crush Malachi. They’re all well-developed in their personalities and relationships with Emoni. The other side characters like Julio, Leslie, and Chef Ayden are excellent too. Honestly, I ended up loving everyone.
Just as poetry is instrumental to Xiomara’s life in The Poet X, here food is integral to Emoni’s sense of self. Her enthusiasm for cooking is infectious; I ended up listening to this while making dinner several times, and it turned out to be tons of fun. And the recipes included in this book were a great touch; I want to eat everything Emoni makes.
This book covers many valuable lessons and themes: cultural exchange, responsibility, finding your passion, leadership, family relations, healthy romantic relationships, and the complex lives teen parents can lead. All of these are handled so well, and told with the savvy narration Acevedo received so much acclaim for in The Poet X. I loved watching Emoni’s development into a leader in her cooking class, her struggles with the men in her life, and her journey from indecision to taking charge of what she wants her life to be after high school. This book has so much meaning packed into every word, but it also manages to be so entertaining.
In the end, With the Fire on High is at least as spectacular as The Poet X. Acevedo is definitely one of the best young adult authors writing today; the stories she weaves are so important and powerful. The characters feel real, the plot is relatable yet also fresh and original, and the feelings evoked are heartfelt, eloquent, and moving. You’ve got to read this (or, better, listen to the audiobook, as I did. You won’t want to miss Acevedo’s performance)!
Overall rating: 9/10