I believe everyone possesses a bit of magic. Not necessarily, the Hermoine Granger-kind. Though that would be nice, wouldn’t it? The magic I mean is more like a special gift or talent. Something that we are uniquely exceptional at. For instance, I’m really good at finding awesome hiding places; nooks where I can read undisturbed for hours on end, ignoring the distant calls of my constantly-hungry children. It’s a piece of heaven on earth.
In the second book in our Elizabeth Acevedo series, With The Fire On High, the main character, Emoni Santiago definitely has magic. She’s a 17 year old, high school senior. She has no formal culinary training, yet Emoni’s skills in the kitchen are fierce. She’s a brilliant cook; able to reinvigorate traditional dishes, adding a little something extra that will elevate it to the next level of deliciousness. But her food is more than just tasty. When someone eats a dish created by Emoni, precious memories surface, drawing out emotions they never would have anticipated. It’s a true culinary experience. This is Emoni’s special gift. And her goal is to one day run her own kitchen, as an executive chef in a restaurant. But life has been far from easy for Emoni. She’s got a lot on her plate, so to speak. Despite having a strong work ethic, school is tough. Emoni struggles to meet the standardized metrics for learning. She’s also doggedly sidestepping the advances of a charming new kid at her school. She works part-time at a dismal burger joint, to help her Abuela make ends meet. And she’s wrestling with conflicting emotions when it comes to her absentee father. But the number one concern in Emoni’s life is her 2 year old daughter, Emma.
Emoni became pregnant her freshman year of high school. She knew her decision to keep the baby would mean an end to her own childhood. But it’s a decision she’s never regretted. Babygirl Emma, is her heart and soul.
Emoni has dreams for the future. Big-time aspirations. But as she tries to map out a way to reach those dreams, every path seems to be lined with high hurdles to clear. A new culinary arts class offered at her charter school, presents a golden opportunity for Emoni. She can show off her amazing skills to her instructor and fellow classmates. However, in short order, Emoni will come to realize that she still has a lot to learn if she wants to become a world-class chef; primarily technique, precision, and teamwork. Is Emoni up for the challenge? Can she successfully balance all of her responsibilities, inside and outside of school? Is college a reasonable possibility for her, when her grades (and financial demands) say otherwise? Can she find a way forward that will allow her to fulfill her promise as well as fulfill her duties as a mother?
With The Fire On High is a wonderful novel. It realistically depicts themes such as family separation and teen motherhood in a way that is rarely seen in literature. It also gives space for discussions on race, colorism, and culture which I greatly appreciated. Following Emoni Santiago on her personal journey was an enlightening experience. Speaking as a parent, I can attest to how difficult motherhood can be. Sacrifice is inherent to the job. But you do it willingly, because the child must always come first. I couldn’t imagine my teenage-self having to take on that type of responsibility.
Unlike The Poet X which burns with intensity, a volcano on the verge of eruption, With The Fire On High strikes a more temperate note (ironic, considering its title). There are conflicts and moments of tension, but Emoni always manages to handle these moments with a maturity and wisdom that belies her age. But I guess when you’re responsible for the well-being of a child, it’s always best to stay clear of erupting volcanoes.
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