“With the Fire on High” by Elizabeth Acevedo touches on the struggle girls of color have when opportunities come their way because they live in a place where such opportunities never come or they feel they can’t handle those opportunities due to where they live and how they live.
Emoni Santiago is a 17-year-old high school senior with a passion to cook. She’s always cooking at home for ‘Buela and Emma aka Babygirl, the daughter she had at 14. A culinary experience class opens at her charter school and she gets a spot, but she realizes her usual rule-breaking in the kitchen at home won’t cut it in class. She tries to ignore the hiccups and wallows in the successes of the class since they have the opportunity to go to Spain at the end of the semester. It takes a fancy dinner at a restaurant to convince Emoni to take the class more seriously since it can lead her to a culinary career. Once she refocuses, she becomes the head of the donation drive for the Spain trip. And she also finds herself somewhat falling for Malachi – they like each other but Emoni wants to put Babygirl and school first, especially when she senses something off with ‘Buela, deals with a father going in and out of her life by flying to Puerto Rico, hands off Babygirl to her father Tyrone and his family, and sustains a relationship with her deceased mother’s sister.
As a teen mom, Emoni feels guilty about opportunities that would take her away from Babygirl because she knows not only she but also her family had to make sacrifices for her daughter because of her unplanned pregnancy. She wants to stay home and cook dishes her way because that keeps her close to ‘Buela and Babygirl, which almost derails her from continuing with the prized culinary class and going to Spain. There are chapters focusing on her time in Spain and she brings up the disbelief a girl from North Philly ended up in Seville. It also helps her find a way to attend college and stay close to home for her family. But the worrying about how the opportunities could mess up her current life when her current life may not be ideal but comfortable sticks with her as she tries to decide what’s next.
The theme of motherhood resonates in the novel with Emoni taking care of Babygirl while also wondering what her mother would’ve been like. Her mother died during childbirth and her father, Julio, gave her to his mother ‘Buela to raise. So while Emoni is working hard to be the best mother she can be on top of high school and college preparation, she questions why Julio is not around when he’s alive. And ‘Buela starts to be secretive over the stress of raising Julio then having to raise Emoni then helping raise Babygirl. Her mothering becomes endless in a way, and Emoni wishes she could change things to make it easier for her grandmother.
Overall, the book has remnants of an Americanized modern-day version of the classic “Like Water for Chocolate” with each part opening up to a recipe Emoni wants to conquer. Throughout the book, her cooking is heightened with ingredients she chooses for home and school to make her food pop. Then her family and class experience deeply-rooted emotions when she cooks and those emotions are even seen with the restaurateurs in Spain. Food is magic. Every other chapter being dedicated to what we already know about her past is annoying; it was already weaved into the story and additional details could’ve been weaved. The story stalled with those chapters and elongated it for no reason, but maybe for other readers that technique works. It’s a new perspective on YA lit with the teen mom lifestyle and school being a big part of the story like the author’s first novel, “Poet X.” The theme of a girl of color trying to figure out her dreams is still present in this novel and is elevated with the new perspective of culinary dreams.