This book starts off with an aromatic sizzle and builds to a full flambé, and, if you think that sounds appetizing, just wait till you read the descriptions of Emoni’s dishes. Packed full of seasoning—both literally and metaphorically (nearly all the characters are Black and/or Latinx)—_ _ is a hearty tale of love, family, friendship, and food.
Our hero and narrator is Emoni Santiago, an Afro-Boricua high school senior whose love for cooking is exceeded only by her love for her abuela and two-year-old daughter. Juggling work, school, and the responsibilities of being a single parent presents a unique set of challenges that Emoni never fails to meet head-on. Her narrative voice is casual, earnest, fun, and a little bit sassy, which makes it feel like she’s talking to you through the page as a friend. The novel is broken up into short chapters of about 2-5 pages each, making it easy to get through the text quickly. I don’t know about you, but my attention span has been shot to hell in quarantine, so the fact that I read all 400 pages of this book in one sitting is a testament to Elizabeth Acevedo’s ability to engage the reader and keep the story moving along.
What I love most about this novel—even more than the descriptions of food and cooking, because, really, these are some of the most mouthwatering passages I’ve ever read in my life—is how true and authentic all the characters feel. From honest depictions of first-time sex (“…he was panting and sweating on my chest and apologizing. And I kept telling him it was okay, thinking he was apologizing for hurting me until I realized he was apologizing because it was over.”) to embarrassing moments of drunkenness (“She looks like she’s about to fall. Then she lowers her head, and bends her body, and throws up all over her shoes.”), these students cuss, roast their friends, crack up at their teacher’s unintentional innuendo, and otherwise just behave like real human beings you might meet if you walked into any high school today. And it’s not just the teenagers: Emoni’s abuela gets a sweet little side plot of her own, in which she demonstrates a desire to be seen and understood as her own person, outside of her roles of grandmother and caretaker.
Beyond simply writing these characters with depth, Acevedo—who identifies as Afro-Latina herself—also writes with a nuance and compassion that the white-dominated YA market so often fails to imbue in Black and Brown characters. This is especially notable because all of the main characters also come from low-income families. Malachi, the new boy at school who becomes Emoni’s love interest, lost his brother to gun violence in his old neighborhood; Emoni’s best friend, Angelica—who provides wholesome LGBTQ+ representation as a lesbian in a loving and, frankly, adorable relationship—has a graphic design side hustle. As Emoni’s culinary arts class has planned a trip to Spain, Emoni spearheads the effort to raise the funds necessary for them to go, in addition to helping to support her family with a part-time fast food job, caring for her daughter, and applying to college. It’s a lot to put on a seventeen-year-old, but Emoni shoulders it all with grit, optimism, and no small amount of spice.
I’ll be honest: if you don’t choose this book for your December box, you should procure it by other means, because this is one of those stories everyone could use in their lives. (Which is true of all the titles we offer every month, but especially so for this one.) If you love complex themes and quality minority representation in YA, or simply want something to brighten up your day (and your shelves—I mean, just look at that gorgeous cover art!), With the Fire on High is 100% the book for you.