While I loved being in my graduate program for my MA in American Literature, I really missed reading young adult novels. I missed reading what my students were reading! When I worked at the bookstore, I got read young adult fiction all the time. There is exceptional content coming from young adult authors these days. Anyone can find something they like in young adult fiction, even though the label is “young adult.” You don’t have to be young to enjoy, maybe just young at heart.
One of the YA books I picked up last year was Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High. A student gave a book talk on it in my American Studies class. I made a point to start reading exactly what my students were reading, so I ordered this book quickly.
Not many books, let alone YA novels, represent teen parents, but With the Fire on High changes that. Emoni Santiago is a teen mother to toddler Emma (Baby Girl).
“I wanted to give Baby Girl 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. They know way more about me than they need to know, and shit — I mean, shoot — information ain’t free, so my daughter’s name isn’t going to tell anybody any information they didn’t earn.”Acevedo 9
Emoni lives with her ‘Buela, who helps take care of Baby Girl, while Emoni attends the local high school.
“Okay, Emoni. Today? Time to be a big girl.”Acevedo 8
Emoni’s mother, an African American woman from the south, passed away when Emoni was a child. Her father returned to Puerto Rico after his wife’s death, and Emoni, ‘Buela, and Emma only get to see him on special occasions. Emoni is a young woman parenting without her parents. Furthermore, without them, Emoni struggles to communicate to others the wholeness of her Black-Puerto Rican identity.
“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, homies. The whole of me is Black. The whole of me is whole.”Acevedo 70
‘Buela and best friend Angelica are always there to support Emoni. Baby Girl’s father, Tyrone, is also a significant part of taking care of Baby Girl, even though he and Emoni decided not to be together. Even though, like all parents, Emoni and Tyrone disagree about decisions about Baby Girl, these teen parents have support systems that not all young parents do.
One of the things I like about this book is how it debunks the myth that teen parents can’t be good parents.
“Yup. I was that girl your moms warns you about being friends with. And warns you about becoming. Not even done with freshman year of high school and already a belly that extended past my toes.”Acevedo 21
While it might not be ideal for teens to become parents, when it happens, they deserve love and support just like any parent. Too often, society writes them — and single parents in general — off as incapable and less than. Emoni and her circle show us that’s just not true.
To provide for Baby Girl, she works at a local fast-food restaurant. The restaurant job is unfulfilling, but Emoni does love to cook. In fact, she is a culinary genius, according to her friends and family.
“When ‘Buela tasted it (whatever ‘it’ was) she says it was the best thing she’d ever eaten. How it made her whole day better, sweeter. Says a memory of Puerto Rico she hadn’t thought about in years reached out like an island hammock and cradled her close. When she tells the story, it’s always a different simile, but still sweet like that. All I know is she cried into her plate that night. And so at the age of four, I learned someone could cry from a happy memory.”Acevedo 16
“Angelica thinks it’s because we live in the hood, so we never have exactly the right ingredients — we gotta innovate, baby. My Aunt Sarah says it’s in our blood, an innate need to tell a story through food. ‘Buela says it’s definitely a blessing, magic.”Acevedo 17
Throughout the novel, different sections begin with recipes Emoni creates, including: “When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemon Verbena Tembleque,” “No Use Crying Over Spilled Strawberry Milk,” and “When the World Tries to Break You, Break Beer Bread with Those You Love.” Hopefully, the recipes encourage readers to fall in love with food and cooking the same way Emoni has!
Opportunity knocks when Emoni enrolls in a cooking class at school during her senior year. The course revolves around training young people for the professional restaurant industry. Chef Ayden is a strict teacher and mentor.
“‘this is about creativity, and heart, and science — an art form. And no artist begins a masterpiece without understanding their tools and their medium. Anyone can teach you how to cook; you can google that. If you want to learn how to make art, stay here.’”Acevedo 64
Nevertheless, he alerts the students to the cooking trip they can take to Spain during spring break. No one is more motivated to become a chef than Emoni, and no one is cut out to be as successful as she is at impressing Spanish chefs. She knows that she and ‘Buela can’t afford it. Nor does she believe she should shirk her parenting responsibilities or part for Baby Girl for even a week.
“That my hopes and dreams seem so far out of reach I have to squint to see them, so how could I possibly pursue them?”Acevedo 124
With the support of ‘Buela, Angelica, Tyrone, Chef Ayden, and the cute new guy in school — Malachi — Emoni decides to reach for the impossible despite the inevitable struggles. She takes the lead in planning a Winter Dinner to raise funds for the trip to Spain, works her job, stays on top of her homework, co-parents Baby Girl with Tyrone and ‘Buela, explores options for learning to become a chef after high school, tries to heal the relationship she has with her father, resolves identity issues, and begins a new relationship with Malachi.
It’s a lot.
Cooking — her catharsis, her art — keep her going. While cooking is her escape, it is also her talent.
“I just take another bite of my sandwich, close my eyes, and savor, because I can’t think of a single way to make my life more how I imagine it, but I can imagine a hundred ways to make this sandwich better. And sometimes focusing on what you can control is the only way to lessen the pang in your chest when you think about the things you cant.” Acevedo 28
Something YA novels are doing now is telling stories about kids from cities and neighborhoods that society has termed “ghetto,” “the bad part of town,” “dangerous.” When we label places, we also label the people who live there, even if that label doesn’t fit their reality. With the Fire on High pushes against this phenomenon with descriptions of Emoni’s Philly neighborhood. Gentrification is something teenagers who live in cities deal with all the time. Books like Acevedo’s give young readers a way to see their own frustrations that come with having their whole worlds constantly upended.
“They call us part of the Badlands, but when you stay here, you know there’s a lot more goodness than is reported in the news. . . . Maybe it’s more than just a tale of two cities; it’s a tale of two neighborhoods. On the one hand, people are scared to come over here because they say this part of town is dangerous, ‘underdeveloped,’ and a part of me thinks, good, keep out then. But everyone knows that the good things like farmers’ markets, and updated grocery stores, and consistent trash pickup only happen when outsiders move in.”Acevedo 86
“Home. I come from a place that’s as sweet as the freshest berry, as sour as curdled milk; where we dream of owning mansions and leaving the hood, where we couldn’t imagine having been raised anywhere else. . . . Where we come from leaves its fingerprints all over us, and if you know how to recall the signs of a place, you know a little bit more who someone is. . . . And me? I’m pure Fairhill, but I also got more than one city, one hood inside me. And anyone who wants to get to know me has to know how to appreciate the multiple skylines.”Acevedo 87
While rewriting the representation of single teen parents, Acevedo gives us the portrait of a true artist learning about her power as a chef, a mother, and a woman.
“Although my food still doesn’t give me any memories, it has always been looking back; it’s infused with the people I come from. But it’s also a way for me to look forward: to watch the recipes that from my roots transform, grow, and feed the hungriest places inside me. And like a map I’ve been following without knowing the exact destination, I know now I’ve been equipping myself with tools from the journey to help me survive when I arrive. Although I don’t have all the answers for what is coming next, I can finally see a glimpse of where I, Emoni Santiago, am going.”Acevedo 382
I love this book for what it tells my students: no matter what life hands you, no matter how difficult it may be, surround yourself with people who cheer you on and hold on to your power, talent, and inherent worth. Don’t let anyone try to tell you you aren’t worthy because of x,y, or z. Because they are wrong.
“Not all recipes in life are easily understood or followed or deconstructed. Sometimes you have to take what is given to you and use your talents to brew the best tea possible . . . . Trust. Yourself mainly, but the world, too. There is magic working in your favor.” Acevedo 344-45Acevedo 344-45
I also love what this book has to say about raising children and young people. I firmly believe that the old adage “it takes a village” is true. Parents might be the ones in charge of a child’s life, but every parent needs a village behind them, cheering them on and helping out when they can. Why not rally behind parents and their children and show them how loved they are?
“People say that you’re stuck with the family you’re born into. And for most people, that’s probably true. But we all make choices about people. Who we want to hold close, who we want to remain in our lives, and who we are just fine without. I choose not to dwell on my father’s rotating-door style of parenting, and instead reflect on my grandmother’s choice to not only bring me home from the hospital and raise me, but also to offer me a fighting chance.”Acevedo 60
There are so many ways to support young parents and single parents. I volunteer for a local organization, Because of Ruth, which provides mentorship opportunities for parents who need someone cheering them on. Please check out their website; donate or volunteer to organizations like this and be a part of a family’s village!
Another way to support families is to support small businesses! Check out how supporting small and local businesses help families here. If you decided to buy With the Fire On High, order it from Bookshop.org to support independent bookstores, or visit your local indie bookstore!
Trigger Warnings: colorism; loss of a loved one (parent); pregnancy (teen pregnancy, single parenting); prejudice (race, gender, sexuality, class)