Contemporary Literature · Young Adult

With the Fire on High

I read Acevedo’s debut (and multiple award winning) novel The Poet X last year and LOVED it. So you know I was all about reading this, her second novel, as soon as I could. That’s about all the intro I have for this one, but just to make this a little longer, can we also take a second to just stare at that stunning cover? Like, literally, I feel like my eyes are filled with fire (in a good way) just looking at it. And her last cover was just as gorgeous. How is this possible?! I’m jealous and it’s not like I’ve even written a novel that has a cover, I just know that if I had, there’s no way it would be this beautiful.

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo


“The world is a turntable that never stops spinning; as humans we merely choose the tracks we want to sit out and the ones that inspire us to dance.”

Emoni Santiago is a senior in high school in Philly, PA. She has a young daughter at home, and they live with the abuela that raised her. Emoni’s mother died when she was young, her father moved back to Puerto Rico, his home island, and she’s been living and making the tough decisions for years as she make her way through life. This year though, it looks like the decisions will get even harder… Her school is offering a culinary arts class for the first time ever, and though Emoni loves cooking more than anything (and according to her grandmother, has a magical touch with it), will she have the time and financial capability to take the class? Plus, there’s big choices about next year: college or not? Her daughter’s father, Tyrone, tends to make things more complicated when he helps with baby girl, not less. Her own father is periodically present, but not one to count on and mostly a phone presence from afar. And of course, there’s a new guy (Malachi) in school this year, transferred in from Newark, who’s got his eye on Emoni.

I was really impressed with the breadth of perspective input we get in this novel, which is a little different from the first, where I felt (for the most part) that everything was more focused around Xo and her POV. In this case, Emoni is particularly understanding and aware of the needs of those around her and, though she has the obvious inner complaints and small explosive reactions (as we all do), I think her emotional state is definitely healthier in general. Through her interactions with the people in her life, we get insight into so many different life situations and choices, and though they are colored with Emoni’s lens, it’s a fairly accepting lens. I love, in particular, the way she is with her abuela and Babygirl at home, both in the way they share responsibilities and in the way abuela is clear about, and Emoni accepts, her need for her own life. Similarly, Emoni’s interactions with her culinary arts teacher are great – she is an authentically “high school” girl, convinced she knows best and that she doesn’t need the basics, while Chef does his best to teach lessons greater than just fostering the natural ability to cook. Also, Emoni’s relationships with her friends, both Malachi and Angelica, are fantastic – snarky and supportive and accepting in all the best ways that teens can be. And a great big bonus here is healthy masculinity; gentleness and respect for women is strong with Malachi. Honestly, even though Tyrone is selfish/pushy, in the end he too makes some growth in a healthy direction too. Similar feels about Emoni’s own father, as well. And the message there about consistent effort to be better, that you can learn to be better, is very important.

Another thing that I want to highlight all on its own is the genuine, balanced, non-judgemental depiction of teen parenting. Emoni works hard to support and care for the daughter, while still trying to balance that with her own responsibilities in school, at her job and, as a teenager, with friends. It’s obviously hard, Emoni is honest and clear about the challenges, but the joys are there too. And she rises to and cherishes each in appropriate order with such grace and poise. I cannot say enough about how wonderfully Emoni is written as a young mother – this is a situation which is often ridiculed, criticized, stereotyped and more, but Acevedo manages to write Emoni’s navigation of complex situations and compromise in a mature, tender, beautiful and believable way. This is the role model for adolescent mothers that has been sorely missing in the YA genre. And at the same time, Acevedo still is able to write Emoni as a proud, strong, motivated and hard-working person in her own right, for her own goals. She stands up for herself, works towards her goals (can we talk about how awesome she was with the fundraisers?! – dang), handles failure in a way that inspires everyone else to help her move past it and succeed despite it all, and understands when to ask for help and when to reevaluate to make sure her decisions are the best ones, all while continuing to reach for what she dreams of. It’s ridiculously inspiring.

I can tell you one thing, Acevedo has not suffered, at all, from the sophomore slump. This novel was just as good as her first, full of smoothly flowing writing (with the perfect mix of literary and contemporary language, and fantastic inclusion of Spanish words/phrases), full developed relationships (especially the family ones – that’s where Acevedo really shines), such healthy addressing of complex and difficult topics/choices, pride is one’s home/family/culture, and an effortlessly diverse cast of characters. And the food – OMG if you can manage to get through this book and all it’s mouth-watering descriptions of cooking and recipes without stopping fifteen different times to make yourself a snack (and thus gaining like ten pounds during your time spent reading) then color me impressed. I am only half-joking here. But with all joking aside, though I didn’t connect with it one on quite as personal a level as I did the first one (the religion/guilt aspect in The Poet X really got me), that doesn’t change the fact that this second novel was simply spectacular.

As with her debut, Acevedo’s language is something special. Enjoy these couple highlights:

“And I know the past isn’t a mirror image of the future, but it’s a reflection of what can be; and when your first love breaks your heart, the shards of that can draw blood for a long, long time.”

“And sometimes focusing on what you can control is the only way to lessen the pang in your chest when you think about the things you can’t.”

“…you can’t control how people look at you, but you can control how far back you pull your shoulders and how high you lift your chin.”

6 thoughts on “With the Fire on High

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