I have wanted to read With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo (Quill Tree Books, 2019) ever since it first came out. I mean, LOOK AT THAT COVER! (And I’m not usually a LOOK AT THAT COVER kind of person.) The story itself sounded fascinating as well – single teenage mom whose passion is cooking, trying to figure out her future? Yes, please. And with the 2023 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompting me to read a book written during NaNoWriMo, I finally had my chance to dive into this (AND I WON’T EVEN MENTION HOW JEALOUS I AM OF THIS AUTHOR MANAGING TO WRITE THIS WONDER OF A BOOK IN A MONTH. NOPE, NOT AT ALL JEALOUS).
Emoni Santiago isn’t your typical high school senior. She’s a single mom to her two-year-old daughter Emma, living with her grandma, struggling through school and work and her feelings about her non-present father. Life is challenging at best, but Emoni’s making the best of it, even if she’s unsure about what the future holds. College? It’d be great, but school has always been tough, and money is an ever-present issue for Emoni and her grandmother.
At the start of senior year, Emoni, who has a gift in the kitchen, gets the chance to take a new elective, a culinary arts class that focuses on the food of Spain, including a class trip to Spain later on in the year. This class will expand not only Emoni’s culinary skills, but her social ones as well: Malachi, the new boy, is gently pushing her boundaries and opening her eyes to the friendship-and-maybe-more she’s been missing out on during the past few years, and Chef Ayden, her instructor, is helping her to understand that a good chef also needs to sometimes follow and not just lead. Emoni’s under a lot of pressure, but this is a year of growth, and her path is as beautiful as the cover of this book.
I really enjoyed this. Emoni is strong, determined, flawed but admirable. She struggles with school but works her tail off to get where she is. She’s fierce in her parenting with her daughter; her grandmother helps out but always maintains a little bit of distance, letting Emoni parent and serving more as an extra set of hands (I truly loved ‘Buela’s later-in-the-book breakdown and desperate need to be herself and not just a grandmother and caregiver. HUGE props to Ms. Acevedo for including this; I hope every teenage girl reading this has this scene cemented in her brain for later in life, should they become parents. It’s so unbelievably difficult to maintain a sense of identity when you’re a full-time caregiver like ‘Buela is and has been for almost the entirety of her adult life, and it’s an absolute NEED that gets ignored by society most of the time. High five to Ms. Acevedo for stressing that importance and showing young girls that they should not only maintain that sense of self but demand that others allow them to maintain it).
I loved Emoni, not only for her determination, but her consideration for everyone around her. She’s always taking care of her best friend (whose fledgling relationship is adorable), doing her best for daughter even when it’s tough (interacting with her ex’s parents is a time), with an eye on the future and what it will cost in terms of money, time, effort – not just for her, but for her daughter and grandmother as well. Life is so much tougher for Emoni than it should be, but she manages it with grace and strength, and she’s truly an admirable character.
Visit Elizabeth Acevedo’s website here.