Elizabeth Acevedo wrote her first book, The Poet X, without any clue that it would become the phenomenon that it did. Well, phenomenon it became. I have yet to read it, but her sophomore novel, With the Fire on High, has only made me more likely to pick it up sooner rather than later.
When I saw online that she was having a book launch for With the Fire on High right here in D.C., I bought my ticket immediately. I didn’t much know what the book was about, but I figured that it would be good. I figured correctly.
The novel follows Emoni, our teenage protagonist, who is navigating her last year in high school, her tenuous relationship with the father of her child, her own topsy-turvy familial ties, life with a toddler, and how best to fit her dreams of culinary arts into the reality of life as a Latina teenage mother from a poor neighborhood. That book description sounds kind of sad and hopeless, but the beautiful thing about Acevedo’s novel is that it isn’t, at all. She breathes life and hope into a character that many would assume moves aimlessly through the first with little of the second. And this isn’t just a story to make you feel good. Sometimes, these stories can feel somewhat manufactured, like “Look! Here is someone who is defying the odds! Not everyone is a stereotype! Rah rah.” And it’s true. Emoni is defying odds, and she isn’t a stereotype. It’s not because she is a political statement of the author, either. She just is. She feels real. Her love of food and cooking feels real. Her life and her struggles and her concern feel real. Her tone and outlook as a teenager who is immature in some ways but forced to be mature in others feels real. Emoni is my favorite type of character: one who thinks, talks, acts, and feels like a real person. And I was just as invested in her story by the end as I am in the stories of all the real-life Emonis out there, who are so often reduced to statistics and stereotypes instead of the real people they are. Thank you, Elizabeth, for bringing Emoni’s story to us.