This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:
Emoni Santiago knows that when people see her name, they get an idea of the person they’re going to meet — the same way people thought they knew the kind of girl she was when she got pregnant her freshman year at Schomburg Charter High School.
She didn’t want to give away information like that for her daughter. Instead, she explains:
“I wanted to give Babygirl a nice name. The kind of name that doesn’t tell you too much before you meet her, the way mine does. Because nobody ever met a white girl named Emoni, and as soon as they see my name on a résumé or college application they think they know exactly what kind of girl they getting.”
But even if people who see her as a teen mother think they know her, Emoni knows they don’t see the full picture. They don’t understand that her top priority since Babygirl was born is to be a good mother.
Even with help from her grandmother, ‘Buela, at home, Emoni has a lot more than college plans on her mind at the start of senior year in Philadelphia. While her best friend, Angelia, is looking at the best graphic-arts programs and enjoying her relationship with her new girlfriend, Emoni is trying to decide if college (or a relationship) can have a place in her future alongside the hopes and dreams she wants to make a reality for Babygirl. And she wonders if it’s time to focus on doing rather than “spending four years pretending to do” in college.
When an opportunity to take an immersive culinary-arts class comes up at school, Emoni knows this is one thing she has to do even if she isn’t sure what to expect — or even if she can afford the class’ trip to Spain alongside the day-to-day costs of helping ‘Buela keep their house afloat.
“If you ask her to tell it, ‘Buela starts with the same story” of Emoni hopping up on a stool and seasoning her first meal at age 4. Emoni doesn’t know what to believe, but “ever since then ‘Buela is convinced I have magical hands when it comes to cooking. And I don’t know if I really have something special, or if her telling me I got something special has brainwashed me into believing it, but I do know I’m happier in the kitchen than anywhere else in the world. It’s the one place I let go and only need to focus on the basics: taste, smell, texture, fusion, beauty.”
Unfortunately, her natural affinity for food and years of experimentation in the kitchen don’t go far when it comes to prepping Emoni for the rigors of the culinary class. Chef Ayden wants to prepare them for work in a restaurant, but Emoni chafes under the structure and restrictions that seem designed to impede her creativity.
Emoni already knows a lot about taking care of herself and the people she loves, but over the course of her senior year, she’ll have to decide if she’s ready to learn even more about cooking, family, and opening her heart in With the Fire on High (2019) by Elizabeth Acevdo.
Author Elizabeth Acevedo’s follow-up to her blockbuster verse-novel debut, The Poet X, is another sensational contemporary story. Broken into three parts, With the Fire on High follows the sour, savory, and bittersweet moments as Emoni moves toward graduation and tries to figure out what’s next both for herself and her family.
Emoni’s first-person narration is frank and introspective. She is confident and secure in who she is and the choices she has made, but she also knows that people may have misconceptions about her as a result — something that the novel explores especially well through Emoni’s rivalry and eventual cautious friendship with her classmate “Pretty Leslie Peterson,” about whom Emoni has her own preconceived notions.
Quick, evocative descriptions bring Emoni’s Philadelphia to life as she moves through her neighborhood, where “the sounds of West Allegheny Avenue rush in to greet [her]: cars honking, buses screeching to a stop, rapid Spanglish yelled from the corners as people greet one another, and mothers calling out last-minute instructions to their kids from open windows” and beyond to other parts of the city.
While a romance as sweet as any of her desserts unfolds between Emoni and a new student, the core of this story is the found family and support system that Emoni creates for herself and Babygirl — a family that gets even bigger once she is willing to ask for help when she needs it, because, “like Chef Ayden always says, sometimes you need a team to help you.”
With the Fire on High is a delectable confection filled with optimism, humor, and an obvious affection for each and every character — especially Emoni, a heroine readers will not soon forget.
Possible Pairings: A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Your Destination is On the Left by Lauren Spieller, Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian