ELIZABETH ACEVEDO is the youngest child and only daughter of Dominican immigrants. She holds a BA in Performing Arts from the George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. With over fourteen years of performance poetry experience, Acevedo is a National Poetry Slam Champion, Cave Canem Fellow, CantoMundo Fellow, and participant of the Callaloo Writer’s Workshop.
WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH is her second novel. With her daughter to care for and her abuela to help support, high school senior Emoni Santiago has to make the tough decisions, and do what must be done. The one place she can let her responsibilities go is in the kitchen, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness. Still, she knows she doesn’t have enough time for her school’s new culinary arts class, doesn’t have the money for the class’s trip to Spain — and shouldn’t still be dreaming of someday working in a real kitchen. But even with all the rules she has for her life — and all the rules everyone expects her to play by — once Emoni starts cooking, her only real choice is to let her talent break free.
While Acevedo’s sophomore novel is could be classified as a Young Adult novel, it’s also so much more than that. Emoni is a teenage mom, working to graduate from high school, and also has aspirations to be a chef.
The kitchen is where she can and experiment with recipes from her African American and Puerto Rican roots. Her attempt to perfect recipes passed down for both macaroni and cheese and mofongo lets us know the range she has as a chef. Just as her ability to give attention and care to both her baby and her grandmother while dealing with everything leading up to graduation shows how she doesn’t let chaos distract her from what’s important.
Acevedo does use recipes throughout the book to give us an idea of what Emoni’s capable of preparing, using it as a narrative device, just as great authors like Toni Morrison did before her. However, Acevedo’s words really tend to sparkle when she uses her verse and flow to describe Emoni, stating at one point about her history:
“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.”
WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH has been widely praised, not only for its story, but also for HOW the story is told. It’s the narrative about overcoming obstacles, staying true to your dreams even when being forced to grow up faster than you normally would. It’s an acknowledgement and celebration of a culture and of tradition.
It’s one of the best novels of any kind that you will read all year.