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, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness.
Even though she dreams of working as a chef after she graduates, Emoni knows that it’s not worth her time to pursue the impossible. Yet despite the rules she thinks she has to play by, once Emoni starts cooking, her only choice is to let her talent break free.
When the world tells you that Elizabeth Acevedo, author of the stunning and revolutionary novel-in-verse The Poet X, has written another book called With the Fire on High and that it is as incredible as her first book? You read it – because not only is With the Fire on High indisputably fantastic but, if you read it, you will definitely thank yourself for it later.
Told with Acevedo’s heart-warming and soulful prose, With the Fire on High follows Emoni, an Afro-Puerto-Rican teen and mother, and how she wrestles with being a mum, being a teen, daring to follow her dreams to become a culinary chef, and the weight of responsibilities to be and do all of the above at once.
The praises for this book have been sung low and high, and I can confidently say that its praises are deserved. However, if you needed a little motivation to pick up this book, I am here to give you five reasons to read this stunning book about food, life, and dreams.
1. A story about being a young mother
With the Fire on High is, at its heart, a story about parenthood. Emoni, at 17-years old, is a young mother to three-year old Emma, or ‘Babygirl’. Emoni’s love for Babygirl and the joys of motherhood are keenly felt and are such warm and comforting anchors throughout the story. However, With the Fire on High also explores the responsibilities, duties, and challenges of parenthood. It examines the challenges of being a teen mother, particularly in a misogynistic society that shames and stigmatises young parents, especially young women of colour. It also explores the emotional challenges; such as the loneliness of being a single parent and the alienation she feels from other older mothers and teens her age.
2. … And also a relatable story about being a mother and a teen
The story also explores Emoni’s teen experience and how her role as a mother and the fact that she is a teenager shape her story. Though Emoni has had to ‘grow up’ and make decisions or consider things a little differently to other teens who don’t have children to care for, a pivotal part of the storytelling and narrative is that Emoni is still a teenager – one that is still growing and finding her own place in the world (whilst also being conscious of the fact that her decisions as a teen mother affect her daughter), one that has to balance schoolwork with parenting, one that still needs and craves the parental love that she gives to her daughter, and one that is taking the risk of letting herself love again despite her justified and understandable fears.
3. Food is at the heart of the story – and it is delightful
Emoni dreams of becoming a culinary chef one day, so a central theme across With the Fire on High is food. However, it’s not the mere skill or act of cooking that makes this book so wonderful; the story is also about Emoni’s affinity and passion for cooking, and how something she cooks can evoke powerful feelings – and even memory. For Emoni, food isn’t just something delicious to consume; it’s a tether to family history, it’s an expression and connection to culture, and its passion and a way of life. When an opportunity to take a culinary arts class in high school and to go to Spain arises, Emoni, feeling the pull of her dreams and ambitions, signs up for the class and learns some important lessons about life, patience, humility and leadership.
4. About the complex and wholesome relationships we share with others
Emoni doesn’t do what she does alone, and I loved that the story takes its time to develop the people in her support system. From her best friend Angelica, her queer friend with a heart of gold; Tyrone, Babygirl’s father who isn’t a bad person and is trying to be more present in Babygirl’s life; Emoni’s father, a kind-hearted and generous man who, following the death of Emoni’s mother, distances himself from Emoni and America because of his grief and loss; Emoni’s abuela, who appears calm and quiet but is a force to be reckoned with beneath the surface; and also Malachi, a sweet boy who chases Emoni whilst also respecting her boundaries. All of the relationships are lovely, developed, and add a little more depth and meaning to Emoni’s life.
5. This is not a story about pain; it’s a story about dreams
Given all the stigma and negative perceptions of teenage parenthood, something that I loved about With the Fire on High is that it’s not a story about pain and struggle (though such stories are valid). Rather, With the Fire on High is a story about an Afro-Latina teen mother who is simply doing the best she can and is trying to follow her dreams. Emoni is not a bad person, and her pregnancy is never framed as a ‘bad decision’ or a ‘mistake’, though the story is candid about her poor financial situation, the complex situation with Babygirl’s father and his arrogant family, and the stigma and limitations imposed on her by people who claim to know better.
Instead, Emoni is just a teen who also has a child and is trying to live her life the best she can for herself and for her daughter, and trying to figure out what that life looks like. With the Fire on High is a story about following your dreams, daring to take that first terrifying leap and holding yourself back, and the courage to hope and work hard for your dreams to come true.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
If you love stories about food, following your dreams, and teens who work hard but also dare to hope, then you’ll love With the Fire on High. Full of heart, soul, and the spices of life, With the Fire on High is a fantastic and effortless choice if you are craving a delicious contemporary read.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: When an Afro-Puerto Rican teen mother, who dreams of becoming a culinary chef, is given the opportunity to attend a culinary arts class and travel to Spain, she must follow her passions to discover what she wants in life.
Perfect for: Readers who enjoy complex but wholesome contemporaries; readers who want to read a book about food; readers who want to read something heartwarming.
Think twice if: You like books with a more palpable or distinct plot; you aren’t a fan of slice-of-life type stories.
Genre: young adult, contemporary
Trigger/content warning: death of parent (mentions), use of word g*psy (explicitly challenged)
I want to thank Remy Lai (also the author of Pie in the Sky) for sending me an ARC of With the Fire on High; I appreciate you so much, Remy.
Friend, I loved this book and hope that, if you haven’t read it yet and you decide to pick it up, that you will love it too! Whilst writing this review, I was poking around on Goodreads to see if Acevedo has another book planned – and she does! It’s called Clap When You Land and it releases in May 2020. Exciting! Be sure to add it on Goodreads so we can keep tabs on the cover – which will undoubtedly be beautiful.
- Have you read With the Fire on High? What did you think?
- What is your favourite book about food?
- What is a book that you have read that depicts something that is generally stigmatised in a more positive light?