Genre: YA Contemporary
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Release Date: 7th May 2019
Author Website: Elizabeth Acevedo’s Website
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.
I was drawn to this book by its absolutely gorgeous cover, designed by the incredibly talented Erin Fitzsimmons. Please check out her website if you’re interested in more of her covers! She’s done some amazing work. I mean, look at this.
But you can just take one look at this book and know that it’s pretty, so let’s get into the content.
For me, the really unique aspect of the story (when I first started reading) was the fact that the main character, Emoni, has a daughter. Being a teenage mother isn’t something I see in a lot of books (maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places) but it’s something that so many young people go through, or know someone who has, and there’s so little representation of it.
I loved how teenage motherhood was represented in this book. Emoni’s daughter, Emma AKA Babygirl, is an absolute sweetheart and I loved the interactions between her and Emoni, and Emoni’s abuela. It was just so soft and gentle and real, without being sickly sweet. But despite baby Emma being a big part of the story and an enormous part of Emoni’s life, it is still very much Emoni’s story, and she is what I loved the most about this book.
This was something I saw in an interview with Elizabeth Acevedo (watch here!), where she spoke about how many stories centre on whether or not a teenage girl is going to keep the baby and/or how she deals with the pregnancy. But Acevedo wanted to write about what happens after, when the baby is here and life changes and continues. In her words:
‘With the Fire on High is about Emoni Santiago, who is an Afro-Puerto Rican aspiring chef from Philadelphia who is also a teen mother’.
Emoni is one of those protagonists who you can’t help but root for. She has the perfect balance of ambition and uncertainty, and following her through the culinary arts class and the opportunities it brings her was just a total joy. I don’t think I’ve smiled so hard at a book all the way through before.
Now this might be a leap, but hear me out. As I was reading, I realised that I’d felt this kind of joy before, and that’s while watching sports films. My love of sports films has always been a source of confusion for me (being a small skinny kid with a hypermobility disorder and no coordination) but while reading this book, I think I figured it out. There’s something about watching someone work so hard, watching them throw everything they have into something that’s just so powerful to me. Maybe it’s that their goals are more clear-cut in that it’s get to the Olympics, win the trophy, win nationals and in Emoni’s case, become a professional chef. It’s their passion and determination that makes just the experience of being by their side through the setbacks and the victories that much more rewarding.
And that’s what I felt all the way through this book. I felt like I was sitting in the stands with a big sign saying YOU GOT THIS EMONI and cheering her on, because that’s how desperately I wanted her to be happy and get what she wanted. The sense of community in the book also meant that you felt like they were there shouting with you too. It was the strength of her character, how deeply she loved those close to her, and her perseverance that made being her cheerleader impossible.
I feel like I’m writing her a recommendation letter.
That’s not to say that she isn’t a flawed character, because she is, and that’s another great thing about her. I don’t think anyone would disagree that getting pregnant at fourteen is a traumatic experience, if not just the physical ordeal, then the reactions of the people around her. You can see the emotional toll it took on her, and how the experience has shaped her as a person, though never in a way that I felt was heavy-handed at all. She was just so real..
The relationship between Emoni and her abuela was also very realistic in that it was mostly beautiful. There were so many scenes that I can see in my head right now that just make me smile and think of my own grandma. But there were also moments of pain, as in any relationship, and those moments were beautiful too.
There is also a romantic relationship between Emoni and a boy named Malachi, who is Black and Muslim, and who was just a constant delight to read about. He was supportive and funny and just another lovely layer to the story. I won’t go too far into their relationship because I feel that would be teetering into spoiler territory, but I really loved their relationship all the way through, and the journey it took. I loved that it didn’t take centre stage but complemented Emoni’s personal journey.
Moving on from characters because this review is already too long, and onto structure. This book is very fast-paced, with short chapters that don’t linger or try to stretch themselves out for the sake of it. I didn’t feel any lag at any point in the story and finished it in only two sittings (which is good for me!).
I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about this book. Seriously. Except maybe that it made me snack a lot. Don’t read this book on an empty stomach.
IF YOU LIKE:
- A main character you can root for
- Themes of family
- Themes of food and cooking
- Fast paced stories
- Books featuring teenage mothers
Then this is the book for you!
IF YOU DON’T LIKE
- Single perspective stories
- First person perspective
Maybe give this one a little more thought before going in.
Have you read With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo? Let me know and we can chat!