Still waters run deep in With the Fire on High, the second novel from Elizabeth Acevedo, author of the award-winning The Poet X.
Emoni Santiago, known for her amazing skills in the kitchen, is a senior at her Philadelphia charter school, but her family is closer to the forefront of her mind than classes and college applications. Her 2-year-old daughter, Emma, whom Emoni calls “Babygirl,” has just started daycare. Babygirl’s father, Tyrone, is sweet to the child, but he’s a headache for Emoni. Emoni’s own father, Julio, is an activist who couldn’t handle single parenthood after Emoni’s mother, a black woman from North Carolina, died during childbirth. Now, when Julio visits from Puerto Rico, he leaves without goodbyes. And Emoni’s grandmother, ’Buela, keeps having doctor’s appointments that she doesn’t fully explain.
But at school, a new guy is testing Emoni’s resolve not to deal with pretty boys, and then there’s the elective class she’s taking a chance on—culinary arts. When Emoni cooks at home, her dishes are inspired and have the power to bring people to tears. (Readers can try out Emoni’s dishes for themselves with the many recipes peppered throughout.) But the class assignments feature as much science as they do art, more discipline than creativity, and Emoni isn’t the school-achievement type. Plus, she’s not sure what to do about the culinary class’s study-abroad trip to Spain, which she has no money for.
Readers will connect with Emoni as she navigates complex relationships, her irritation at being misunderstood and her self-identity with confidence and sass while trying to keep her dreams realistic and motherhood on the front burner. Although not as lyrical as Acevedo’s debut, With the Fire on High stands out for its unique, realistic subject matter and memorable characters.