With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo combines two of my favorite hobbies — reading and cooking.
Ever since she got pregnant freshman year, Emoni Santiagno’s life has been about making the tough decisions, doing what has to be done for her daughter and her abuela. The one place she can let all that go is in the kitchen. There’ she lets her hands tell her what to cook, listening to her intuition and adding a little something magical every time, turning her food into straight-up goodness.
Even though she’s always dreamed of working in a kitchen after she graduates, Emoni knows that it’s not worth her time to pursue the impossible. Yet despite the rules she’s made for her life — and everyone else’s rules, which she refuses to play by — once Emoni starts cooking, her only choice is to let her talent break free.
There were so many things that I loved about this book, and literally nothing that I didn’t like. Emoni is a high school senior living in Philadelphia — the hood to be exact. She’s got a two year old daughter, but she doesn’t let single parenthood hold her back from the things she values, like her ‘Buela, who raises her, her best friend Angelica, and cutting loose in the kitchen. Her cooking is a way to cope with her circumstances, stressors, and feel happy.
“…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.”
There are also some recipes in the book, and they’re as diverse as the story. Sprinkled throughout each chapter are comparisons between life and cooking, and it adds that little extra touch of seasoning to the plot. Emoni lives to cook, and it’s definitely what she’s best at.
“Then I brown meat and make a homemade sauce from fresh tomatoes. I grate fine shreds of mozzarella cheese and boil sheets of pasta. While the oven is preheating, I slowly layer my guilt, my hope, and a hundred dreams.”
The book takes a long, hard look at some topics that many face, including teen pregnancy, single parenting, living with complex family relationships, bullying, racism, stereotypes, friendship, poverty, figuring out what to do after high school, and dating.
“Not all Black women, and Latinas, look the same.”
“I learned a lot about what it means to be a fierce friend, to protect someone and learn more about what it was like to walk in their shoes.”
Emoni is biracial, but even that is complicated. She’s always having to explain that her mother’s side is Black-Black, but her father’s side is Puerto Rican with African roots.
“This stuff is complicated. But it’s like I’m some long-division problem folks keep wanting to parcel into pieces, and they don’t hear me when I say: I don’t reduce, homes. The whole of me is Black. The whole of me is whole.”
She and her friends confront stereotypes and bullying head on every chance they get. Emoni learns to establish and enforce healthy boundaries in her relationships, with her daughter, her family, her baby’s father, and her classmates.
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