BookBrowse Reviews With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

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With the Fire on High

by Elizabeth Acevedo

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo X
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
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  • First Published:
    May 2019, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2021, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Catherine M Andronik
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A teenage mother finds new horizons opening up before her when she signs up for a cooking class at school.

From Like Water for Chocolate to Ratatouille, writers have recognized the power of food to evoke strong feelings and nostalgic memories. Elizabeth Acevedo explores this theme in With the Fire on High, her second young adult novel after the multi-award winning The Poet X.

Emoni is a senior in a Philadelphia high school, and she has more on her plate than many of her classmates. She had a baby at the end of her freshman year, and has been raising little Emma (a.k.a. "Babygirl") with the help of her grandmother. Emma's father is present in their lives—but maybe a little too forcefully present, especially when a new boy enters the picture. Emoni's mother died when she was very young, after which her father, more interested in social causes than his own family, returned to Puerto Rico. Bringing all these issues to a head is a new culinary elective, perfect for Emoni's natural talents in the kitchen, which opens up unexpected educational and professional horizons. 

Teen parenthood is not a new subject in YA novels, but With the Fire on High offers a refreshing perspective. Raising a baby has certainly changed Emoni's life, and Babygirl is the center of her world, but at heart she is an ordinary high school senior who opted out of a "special" teen parent track in favor of a regular school day and curriculum. She has an amazing support system to help her with Emma, from her beloved, young-at-heart grandmother; to her lesbian best friend Angelica; and even her ex Tyrone and his overbearing mother, who have partial custody of Emma. Emoni is building a life for herself that is self-affirming as well as loving and positive for her baby. Her growing relationship with patient, gentle Malachi, her new beau, inspires hope that Emoni will eventually open herself up to love as well, despite her less-than-stellar experience with selfish Tyrone. 

Food is at the center of the novel. Emoni has a natural gift for pairing flavors—especially Caribbean flavors—that do not ordinarily go together, tweaking classic recipes and making them her own.  And her creative recipes act on the diner's brain and heart as well as the tongue, evoking long-forgotten memories and feelings. Her teacher, Chef Ayden, guides her to a respect for the essential basics of food preparation and cooking, while recognizing his pupil's extraordinary gift.  Each of the book's three sections include one of Emoni's simpler recipes, all of which figure into the story itself. 

Elizabeth Acevedo's previous novel, The Poet X, was written in verse; With the Fire on High is prose, but the writing is still very lyrical—sometimes as lush as a warm and sunny Caribbean afternoon in the midst of a Philadelphia winter. The author is as much a master of language as Emoni is a master of food. Even the cover art, with its blood oranges, vanilla flowers and fresh herbs, is evocatively mouth-watering.

In Emoni, Acevedo has created a strong, creative, resourceful urban Latina whose story will resonate with both teen readers and adults.  

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in July 2019, and has been updated for the April 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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