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Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Diversity in Literature, Young Adult Readers

WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH by Elizabeth Acevedo

WOW!  I cannot say enough how much I LOVED With the Fire on High! Emoni Santiago is one of my new favorite characters in literature. She’s extraordinary.  Her mother was Jamaican and her father is Puerto Rican.  She has always lived with her paternal grandmother; her father shows up for about a month (usually July) out of every year and then he returns to Puerto Rico where he is an outspoken advocate for self-education and social justice.  As a freshman in high school Emoni became pregnant and made the decision to carry the baby full term and keep it.  When we meet her Emoni is now 17 years old and her daughter, Emma (Babygirl), is a two-year-old toddler.  Emoni has a deep love of cooking as well as an innate talent for it.  She dreams of becoming a chef.

Emoni does well in school when she is involved in hands-on projects, like labs, etc. but struggles with classes that often require aural learning or memorization.  At the beginning of With the Fire on High Emoni is a senior in high school.  She is caught up in making post-graduation plans:  Should she go to college? Could she get accepted into college? How could she possibly pay for college?  Does she have the abilities to become a great chef?  And mixed in with these common worries of high school seniors Emoni must factor in how she continues to be (and grow) as a single mother.  She is in the position of being a child at the same time she is raising a child.

The honesty and heart with which Emoni navigates her relationships with friends, her daughter’s father (and family), her grandmother, her father and her hopes for the future will rock you back on your heels in admiration for this young woman.  I have rarely encountered a character I wanted to cheer for as much as Emoni. Her struggle to create a life (and a future) for herself in which she can achieve her own dreams, as well as parent her daughter in such a way as to nurture and support whatever Emma’s dreams may be is a profoundly moving story.

With the Fire on High is definitely a young adult book.  In line with the honesty of her story Emoni talks about the decisions she made in the past that led to getting pregnant at such a young age, how she now structures her relationships with boys, and how she might want to structure romantic relationships going forward.  The content is appropriate to both the story and the characters of the book.  The sexual content is dealt with honestly but without sensationalizing it, as it really is an integral (though by no means the biggest) part of Emoni’s story.  I highly recommend With the Fire on High as an independent read for teens–girls in particular.  Given its content I know I would, however, prefer to read it with my teenage daughter, or at least be aware that she is reading it and check in with her as she is reading it to clarify any questions she may have.

This is my first experience with Elizabeth Acevedo’s work. I am in awe of her ability to structure and pace the story so perfectly, as well as create a teenage character as strong and genuine as Emoni.  With the Fire on High is one of those reading experiences that will stay with me even now that I have finished the book itself.

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