With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acebedo
This book flashed on the screen while I was checking the library’s hours on their website. Because of the 14-day deadline, I don’t normally check out recent releases, but I just had to read this one.
“Ever since she got pregnant freshman year, Emoni Santiago’s life has been about making the tough decisions, doing what has to be done for her daughter and her abuela. The one place she can let all that go is in the kitchen. There, she lets her hands tell her what to cook, listening to her intuition and adding a little something magical every time, turning her food into straight-up goodness.
“Even thought she’s always dreamed of working in a kitchen after she graduates, Emoni knows that it’s not worth her time to pursue the impossible. Yet despite the rules she’s made for her life—and everyone else’s rules, which she refuses to play by—once Emoni starts cooking, her only choice is to let her talent break free.”
Emoni is a Boricua Phili girl with magic in her fingers. In the kitchen, that magic not only frees her from current troubles, it connects her with her past and launches her toward the future. With grit and determination, she surmounts challenges none of her peers face. While people rarely think of teen mothers as role models, Emoni definitely is.
While others wonder if Emoni’s Puerto Rican heritage “disqualifies” her from being a “real” black girl, or whether she “counts” as Hispanic if she doesn’t speak Spanish well, Emoni is sure of herself. Her confidence in her identity is refreshing in a genre plagued by identity issues.
Emoni knows who she is, but she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. She can’t see past the day-to-day struggles into her dreams for the future.
Michael, the principal love interest, draws the dreamer out of her practical nature. In most YA romantic subplots, the guy is usually too perfect and too persistent to be realistic. This book falls into the same trap, but it is one of the better ones in that regard. Michael’s backstory and the casual nature of their relationship keeps it from getting corny.
Emoni and Michael have great chemistry—another rarity in a genre where good looks is often the only link between love interests. I like that Emoni doesn’t throw herself at him. They develop their relationship at their own pace, on their own terms. More young readers should have role models like them.
Emoni isn’t sure what she wants to do after graduation. Much of the plot is her discovering what she wants. Rather than hooking the reader with constant tension and heart-pounding drama, this book champions the everyday struggles of being a young mother, and I applaud the author for that. So often we overlook how much goes into just keeping a roof over your child’s head.
Not a thriller, but perfect for curling up on the couch.
I love reading books written by poets. Acevedo has a beautiful way of expressing herself. This is one of my favorite passages:
“Although my food still doesn’t give me any memories, it has always been looking back; it’s infused with the people I come from. But it’s also a way for me to look forward: to watch the recipes that from my roots transform, grow, and feed the hungriest places inside of me.”
The author chose not to italicize the Spanish words throughout the English text. This is a common trend among Latino authors, especially Junot Díaz. These authors consider italicizing othering. By writing both Spanish and English words in plain text, the author asserts both languages are a part of the same person, both equal and integral to their identity.
Personally, I prefer italics. I think maintaining plain text flattens the prose, limits characterization, and hinders readers who are first learning to read in a second language. Italics provide needed clarity between false-cognates and help the reader’s narrating mental voice pronounce words correctly. I could devote an entire blog post to this topic, but let me end with this:
While I prefer italics, I understand the author’s justification for not using them, and I respect her choice. My reasons for preferring italics are linguistic rather than socio-political, but I understand that we live in a divided world plagued by racism and xenophobia. If the author feels plain text combats othering, I support her, even as I dream of a world that celebrates differences rather than ostracizing them.
Love the cover.
While it lacks the thrills and dramatic tension of other books, With the Fire on High is a beautiful read. Emoni’s hard work and determination make her a great a role model. I enjoyed the story, and I recommend reading it—even if it means abiding by the library’s 14-day new-book deadline.
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