With the Fire On High

With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo is not the kind of YA book I normally read. It’s general fiction, not SF or fantasy. There is magic in it, but it is part of main character’s life and culture, not the center of the book. I was beguiled by this beautiful cover but bought the book mainly to show solidarity, and shovel some revenue toward my local indie bookstore. I decided to read  chapter or two before I offered the book to a friend… and when I next looked up it was about two and a half hours later. I could not put the book down.

The book follows Emoni Santiago, a Philly high school student who is a single mom. Emoni lives with her grandmother who raised her after her mother died and her Puerto Rican father returned to his home territory to be a community organizer, letting his mother raise his only child. Emoni’s dream is to be a chef, and she can cook. Her recipes are mouth-wateringly delicious, and people who eat her food often find a good memory from their lives popping into their heads. Emoni is raising her daughter Emma, who she calls Babygirl, with the help of her abuela; she got into a charter school and is trying to keep up good enough grades to get into a college with a culinary program, and she works at a fast food joint. An undiagnosed learning disability makes reading and memorization hard for her and that makes school a struggle.

Emoni’s first-person voice is immediate and genuine. She has a lot stacked against her and a lot going for her; her abuela, her best friend Angelica, and a teacher who supports her. Babygirl’s father is in the picture, which is good for Babygirl, but dealing with him and his issues is even more stressful. When Emoni gets into a culinary arts immersion class at school, which has a class trip planned to Spain in the spring, the stakes get even higher, because there is no way Emoni can raise enough money for her share.

This young protagonist is a believable seventeen-year-old. She is fiercely committed to her daughter. She is smart and she fights for her dreams, and she makes teenaged mistakes. Emoni tends to bristle when adults try to tell her what she should do, because, as she sees it, since Babygirl’s been born, she’s been making decisions just fine. The book is good at showing Emoni being strong, and also making mistakes, and finally learning from them.

This is a great book to give any young woman with a dream. It’s not a bad book for an old person to read, either. I recommend it.

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