Group Discussion: With the Fire On High

Young black woman has her curls tied up with a shiny hot pink wrap. She is staring out at reader with a serious expression. She has a large hoop earring in the visible ear.There are various fruits on either side of the book.

Hey, everyone! The Rich in Color bloggers have gotten together to discuss Elizabeth Acevedo’s second novel, WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH. As always with a group discussion, there will be spoilers ahead! But if you’ve already read the book, be sure to send us your thoughts about the novel in the comments below.

Ever since she got pregnant freshman year, Emoni Santiago’s life has been about making the tough decisions—doing what has to be done for her daughter and her abuela. The one place she can let all that go is in the kitchen, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness.

Even though she dreams of working as a chef after she graduates, Emoni knows that it’s not worth her time to pursue the impossible. Yet despite the rules she thinks she has to play by, once Emoni starts cooking, her only choice is to let her talent break free.

Audrey: One of the things I immediately loved about WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH was that this novel wasn’t about the question of if Emoni should continue with her pregnancy. Instead, we were dropped into Emoni’s life after the fact, when she is a senior in high school and a teen mother to a toddler. It was refreshing to have a book about the afterwards of the decision to keep a child and all of the challenges that came with it. It wasn’t all cute baby snuggles (though there were plenty of those)–Emoni had to deal with Tyrone and his family, her family’s financial difficulties, school issues, and a lot of stigma regarding her teen parenthood.

Crystal: Yes, this really gets into some of the complications of teen pregnancy. We see Emoni’s struggles along with the love she has for her daughter. I also appreciated that Emoni thinks through why she was with Tyrone in the first place. She realizes, “So much of my decision to have sex had more to do with being chosen than it did with any sexual attraction.” That’s something that many people can relate to.

Jessica: To be honest, I was just excited to be reading a new book by Elizabeth Acevedo, and I didn’t really know anything at all about what it was about. So I was (pleasantly) surprised to discover when it took place in Emoni’s life. You kind of uncover Emoni’s backstory gradually, just like you would gradually get to know someone in the non-fictional world. That was pretty amazing.

K. Imani: I agree with you Audrey that it was refreshing to have a novel that didn’t deal with the “will I or won’t I” and showed what life was like after. I was reading this as my students were doing their rice baby project and reading Gaby Rodriguez’s The Pregnancy Project, which has my students reevaluate their opinions of teen moms, and I feel like Acevedo’s novel is a wonderful companion book as it shows us how Emoni did struggle but also how she succeeded.

Audrey: Parenting–and what makes a good parent–was a major theme in the novel. Emoni’s own mother died in childbirth, while her father kept flitting in and out of her life, and Emoni was keenly aware of the things she had sacrificed in order to be a mom and what she might end up sacrificing in the future. One of my favorite scenes in the novel was when ’Buela, a mother(-figure) three times over, admitted that she just needed some time to be herself and not a (grand)mother. I loved that we got to see ’Buela having a life outside of Emoni and Babygirl.

Crystal: Family was certainly a major part of this story. The way people are connected and communicating with each other via food is one aspect. Chosen family is also an emphasis. While Emoni’s father never stays, she tries to focus on ‘Buela who does stay and chose her. Keeping this focus is so much better than just dwelling on the feelings of abandonment she has. She says we make choices about who we will hold close and who we are fine without.

Jessica: So glad you brought up chosen family! I feel like in fiction, there’s often two extremes: It’s all about your biological family, or it’s about your completely unrelated friends-as-family family. Here, there’s a sort of in-between: A chosen family that is Emoni’s best friend, grandmother, aunt, etc. An inter-generational family made up of your relatives and your friends is a beautiful thing.

K. Imani: I like that the novel showed that families are complicated and messy and that there is no such thing as a perfect family. I also really liked how all the teens had adults in their lives in some way – even though Tyrone’s mom was horrible to Emoni, she was there for her son. I feel like showing all the different types of family showed that it really does take a village and that family can be what you make of it, but also the family you are born with.

Audrey: Of course, we can’t forget to talk about the food in this novel! I really liked how WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH showed the intersection between the “home” and “professional” culinary spheres and how there are a different set of challenges when switching between the two. Moving from one to the other was a struggle for Emoni, but I was thrilled when she went back to the class and dedicated herself to learning the information, skills, and discipline that would put her on track for a future career in a restaurant.

Crystal: I could relate to Malachi’s relationship to cooking so much. I had a boxed macaroni and cheese disaster when I was in elementary school cooking for my younger sibling and father while my mother was at work. His cooking was out of necessity and while he didn’t hate it, cooking wasn’t his love. Malachi and the others in the class learn and maybe enjoy cooking, but Emoni is pure magic with food. I almost couldn’t imagine her having a food disaster. Aside from her talents, the food she prepares nourishes people physically, but also emotionally. I loved this aspect of the story. Many people have someone in their life who cooks with love you can feel. For me it was my Gram, but her abilities seemed to go even beyond that.

Side note, I just had to try the tembleque recipe at the beginning of the book. I don’t think it affected anyone’s emotions, but it certainly delighted our taste buds. It was refreshing, subtly sweet and perfect for a warm, sunny day.

Jessica: The food! I wanted to start cooking as of, like, page one. I really want to try every single recipe in this book. Funnily enough, I was watching a Taiwanese drama about cooking around the same time I was reading this, so I got a double dose of the chef lesson “respect the recipe before you mess with it” via two different mediums. All the food imagery and the depictions of people’s relationship to food was just so vivid throughout. And I loved the hints of magical realism sprinkled throughout, with Emoni’s cooking affecting people emotionally — it reminded me of Like Water for Chocolate just a tiny bit, a classic I accidentally read when I was in, like, elementary school (yeah, WAY too young…).

K. Imani: I was reminded of Like Water for Chocolate too Jessica, especially as I saw the recipe on the very first page. I got all sorts of excited. I loved the way Acevedo described the different food Emoni made and even how she came up with her ideas. There is an art to good cooking and I felt like Acevedo show how much Emoni was an artist with her cooking. I feel like it also showed the hard balance artists (of all types) must learn when wanting to create, but having to maintain a living. Emoni having to learn that she must stick to a recipe, even when she disagrees with it, and even having the customer in mind at a restaurant, allowed her to understand that she can still be a full creative in the kitchen, just sometimes artists have to make choices to make money. I feel like including this idea, the tension between cooking professionally versus cooking for family, was an essential part of her growth and a good lesson for teens to learn.

Audrey: Emoni’s identity was front and center in this novel, and I really enjoyed how she embraced all her different facets, especially when it came to her Philly and Puerto Rican side: “This stuff is complicated. But 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.” As a biracial reader, that line about folks wanting to parcel her into pieces really resonated with me.

Crystal: I agree that what Emoni said about her identity was powerful, but I also think the way she said things is noteworthy. The way these words go together is very lyrical and visual. Another good example is when Emoni describes the world as a turntable with people choosing which tracks to sit out and which ones, “inspire us to dance.” Acevedo is poetic and clever with words even in prose.

K. Imani: Fun fact – Emoni’s name is just a different spelling of my name, so I loved being able to connect to such a wonderful character in such a meaningful way. Emoni being so open about her identity and making sure everyone understood her position was powerful, especially from someone so young.

Audrey: Another thing I appreciated about WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH was showing Emoni’s support network and how things were changing as she approached legal adulthood: “And although her trust should make me feel better, I feel a slight pang in my chest. Every day it seems ’Buela is stepping back, not just giving me full rein in Babygirl’s life, but also in my own. And I know I should love the freedom, but I don’t think I’m ready for all the safety nets to be cut loose. Doesn’t she know I still need her? That I still wish someone would look at the pieces of my life and tell me how to make sure they all fit back together?” We don’t normally get a “coming of age”-type novel when someone’s already a parent, but I really enjoyed that duality of Emoni growing up just as Babygirl was.

Jessica: Going back to the chosen family thing — I love Emoni’s support network, and the way it’s woven into the story. Emoni is incredible, talented, and going places, but it’s her network of family and friends that keep her going. There’s just such a powerful feeling of: “You got this. We’ve got you. We’re in this together.” And seeing all these people come together for Emoni, while having their own rich and varied lives, honestly made me tear up a little.

K. Imani: I mentioned earlier that this novel showed that it truly takes a village for all to be successful, but her relationship with ‘Buela, and ‘Buela slowly pulling back is such a healthy depiction of an young adult/parent relationship that allows a young adult to become a functional adult in our world. I’m glad that “Buela always gave Emoni advice, but then reminded her that her decisions are her own and she’ll support Emoni no matter what. That allowed Emoni to take risks and make mistakes, but also allowed her to problem solve, and discover her identity which is essential to becoming an adult.

So what did you think of WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH? Let us know!