You ever see a book cover and then think, whatever that book is about, you just know beyond a doubt that you’re gonna love that story? Like, the cover is just so beautiful and speaks to you so much that you know its contents are gonna be just as great?
That’s how I felt when I first saw the cover for With the Fire On High.
I mean, you all know how hard I bat for POC on book covers. And this one, with a lovely Afro-Latinx curly-haired girl in a stylish head scarf (a thing I’m learning to do to my own hair!), is just so beautiful. Plus that color palette, and the grapefruit and orange pattern all over is the right something extra that the cover needed to push it from ‘wow’ to ‘omfg I gotta read this right away!’
All of that, plus that amazing summary? Sign me the hell up! 😍
So you can imagine just how grateful I was when Karina @ Afire Pages said I was gonna be part of the blog tour, I was ecstatic! I read it in one sitting, on a Saturday when I had nothing else to do. When I was done, I literally wanted to grab the nearest person and yell at them about how good the book was – which, the nearest person was my cat, so I did grab her and tell her about good the book was, as evidenced by the photo here.
Title: With the Fire on High
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Genre: Contemporary, Romance, Young Adult
With her daughter to care for and her abuela to help support, high school senior Emoni Santiago has to make the tough decisions, and do what must be done. The one place she can let her responsibilities go is in the kitchen, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness. Still, she knows she doesn’t have enough time for her school’s new culinary arts class, doesn’t have the money for the class’s trip to Spain — and shouldn’t still be dreaming of someday working in a real kitchen. But even with all the rules she has for her life — and all the rules everyone expects her to play by — once Emoni starts cooking, her only real choice is to let her talent break free.
Trigger Warnings: Mention of minors having sex, depiction of difficult parental relationships
☕ Quotes ☕
“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.”
“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.”
“The only question i kept asking myself was ‘can I do this?’ And i realized there wasn’t going to be a perfect answer, only the right answer for me.”
☕ Plot ☕
I’ve never read a book featuring a teen mother before, so this was new territory for me. I went in to this book with no expectations, and I was completely blown away.
From the summary, you kind of get the vibe that this is going to be a “no excuses, if a teen mom can do it so can you” kind of thing. But it is so much more than that. The sheer depth that this novel traverses is nothing short of astounding. To simply describe it as a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of story does a huge, huge disservice to Elizabeth Acevedo’s storytelling skills.
With the Fire on High is a coming-of-age story that talks about an important aspect of this particular genre: that of young people who, due to their circumstances, don’t exactly have the same ‘coming-of-age’ arc we’ve come to expect. You know; the type that well-heeled, more privileged people will cluck their tongues at. Emoni Santiago is one such person. She’s the exact kind of teenaged girl upper middle class white women will sneer at. She’s Afro-Latina, she lives in a “not so nice” part of town, and she got pregnant her freshman year.
Life’s hard, but Emoni’s got several good things going for her: she’s got the undying love and support of her grandmother, a best friend who would do anything for her, and the cutest baby girl in the world. She’s also one heck of a dang good cook. But becoming a chef is a dream she’s too afraid to chase, mostly because of financial constraints, not to mention the fact that doing so might mean time away from her daughter.
I’ve always viewed “inspirational” stories with a certain degree of skepticism, mostly because some of them really reek of resiliency porn. But Elizabeth Acevedo nicely dodges this pitfall by emphasizing the growth and journey of her main character. We see Emoni find a balance between what she wants to do with her life and being the mother her daughter needs, and it works for her. She has grit and tenacity, and a wonderful support network around her, and all of this comes together to form the engine that powers Emoni’s drive. Reading about Emoni growing from someone being unsure about her future to a young woman willing to take her fate by the reins was a treat – one that I enjoyed thoroughly.
One thing that I deeply appreciated about this novel was how it wasn’t completely and totally about Emoni being at teenage mother. It would have been so easy to make the plot revolve solely around that – and it certainly wouldn’t have made the book any less compelling. But because Elizabeth Acevedo is a master of her craft, there are a ton of other side plots to this story that make it twice as engrossing. The book thoughtfully discusses what it means to be Afro-Latinx, the microaggressions – and even outright aggressions – that black people and lower income folk face, the general inaccessibility of higher education, and the gentrification of ethnic neighborhoods. Altogether, With the Fire on High tackles several important issues with some really top-notch storytelling.
☕ Writing ☕
I’m a fan of non-linear storytelling. It feels more realistic, especially when the book is told from a first person point of view. It also feels less Western, and thus appeals more to the part of my brain that hasn’t yet succumbed to Western norms. Elizabeth Acevedo did this very well – the linear progression of the story, beginning with the start of Emoni’s senior year and culminating with the realization of what she wants to do after high school, is interspersed with Emoni’s recollections of her life growing up without a mother, her absent father, and her ever-present ‘Buela. These anecdotes, peppered with Emoni’s unique recipes, serve as a stark reminder to the reader that not only is Emoni an immensely real person, but there are thousands of young girls out there in almost the exact same circumstances.
Even without knowing that she’d written The Poet X (which, to my shame, I have yet to read), I’d realize at once that Elizabeth Acevedo is a poet. Her prose contains the same lyrical, almost fluid quality, and it transitions well! Every single word and phrase in this book seemed deliberately chosen for maximum impact on the reader, and I felt that. Every emotion this book tore from me was wrung out of my heart like water from a sponge. The whole thing was just so evocative, expressive, and poignant. It’s the rare first person novel that can be so moving and still avoid being pretentious (looking at you, John Green). With the Fire on High does that very nicely.
☕ Characters ☕
Several other reviewers have already mentioned this, but one of my favorite things about With the Fire on High is that the character arcs are very well done and thought out.
First of course, you have Emoni. Not only does she learn how to have courage when it comes to her future and her dreams by signing up for a cooking class and going on a school trip to Spain to learn how to cook, she also gets schooled on the important technicalities of being a chef. Too often you have shows or books where the main character is a chef and the main message is that soul or heart is the most important thing in cooking, and that sticking to a recipe or learning the formalities is just another way of bowing to the man and stifling creativity. Not in this book. Emoni learns the hard lesson that while creativity in the kitchen can be a good thing, there are times when it isn’t: such as when it leads to disrespecting the chef or possibly giving a customer an allergic reaction.
Then there’s ‘Buela, Emoni’s grandmother, who learns to rediscover who she is as a woman, and not just the identities of ‘mother’, ‘grandmother’, and now ‘great-grandmother’ – and also primary caregiver – that have been foisted upon her by circumstance. This is an important lesson I think everyone could use a dose of: while it’s important to be who and what your family needs to be, it’s necessary for your health and peace of mind to have something that’s all your own as well.
Emoni’s distant father, Julio, has some learning to do as well. A staunch and patriotic Puerto Rican who becomes devoted to uplifting his community after the death of his wife, Emoni’s father seems to be a great guy but a subpar father at best. His realizations regarding his daughter and granddaughter are slow in coming, but they do come nonetheless, and he works at repairing his relationship with Emoni and dealing with his issues of grief and denial.
Even the father of Emoni’s baby gets some character development. I want to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say, he turns out to no longer be the spoiled ne’er-do-well who wants to control Emoni now that she’s the mother of his child that you at first thinks he is.
Emoni and ‘Buela are surrounded by an amazing cast of supporting characters, such as Angelica, Emoni’s (unapologetically lesbian!) best friend with an artist’s soul, who’s also Emoni’s godmother; then of course there’s Malachi, the dreamy new kid at school whose tense interactions with Emoni blossom into an unlikely friendship and then an even unlikelier romance.
Emoni’s friendship with Angelica was another of my favorite things about this book. Y’all know I go hard for beautiful female friendships, and this is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in YA. Angelica is a fierce protective lion towards anyone who calls Emoni a slut or easy for getting pregnant; meanwhile, Emoni goes full mama bear when Angelica comes out and cusses the hell out of anyone who even looks at her differently. These two are so utterly supportive of each other, their hopes, dreams, plans, and even love lives. If that isn’t friendship goals, I don’t know what is.
And of course, the romance between Emoni and Malachi is deliciously slow-going. Hyper-aware of the fact that she has a kid and any romance she ever has is going to be impacted by that, Emoni is understandably reluctant to begin anything with Malachi. But Malachi is so sweet and understanding, showing Emoni that he does deeply care about her, that he eventually wins her over into becoming friends. Over time, their chemistry involves them into falling in love with each other. It’s easy, natural, and I just love the way Malachi makes sure to remain respectful of Emoni throughout it all.
☕ Overall ☕
Clocking in at just a little under 2,000 words (!!!!), this review is officially one of the longest I’ve ever written. But With the Fire on High deserves it. It’s a beautifully-written unconventional coming-of-age story that makes you stop and think about where you are and who you are in life, the support network around you, and the relationships you have. I enjoyed this book so very much and can’t recommend it enough!
I received a physical ARC of this book as part of the blog tour hosted by Karina @ Afire Pages. If you’d like a chance to win a copy of this amazing book or a t-shirt, click the links to enter! (Shirt design was by Melissa Chan, read more about her designs here.) These giveaways are international, so go on ahead and join up!
Check out the tour schedule below!
April 22 – Afire Pages | Welcome Post & BTS Look on the Cover Design Process
April 23 – Reading Peaches
April 24 – Shut Up, Shealea | Printable wallpapers/ bookmarks
April 25 – A Book Devourer | “The Life of Emoni; A Comparison”
April 26 – Bookish Wanderess
April 27 – Flipping Through the Pages
April 28 – Utopia State of Mind
April 29 – For the Love of Diversity in Books | Aesthetics + Quote Graphics
April 30 – The Royal Polar Bear Reads | Instagram Photos
May 1 – Endless Chapters | Recipe
May 2 – The Ultimate Fangirl
May 3 – The Wolf & Books
May 4 – Book Lover’s Book Reviews
May 5 – Weekend Reader | Cover Inspired Hairstyle
May 6 – The Writer and The Story | Favorite Quotes
May 7 – Themollyweather
May 8 – All Things Gene
May 9 – Darque Dreamer Reads
May 10 – Your Tita Kate
May 11 – Afergtale | “Stories Our Abuelas Wouldn’t Tell Today”
May 12 – F A N N A