Better late to the Elizabeth Acevedo party than never. It’s fair to say that the New York Times bestselling author of The Poet X has greatly fuelled the #ownvoices young adult literary movement. Following in the footsteps of Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, Acevedo has become a young adult novel-in-verse inspiration for many and has played an instrumental role in making poetry cool again. But as if usually the case for authors of colour whose ability to write good form has been questioned by white critics for centuries, Acevedo laments how there is “exponentially more press” about her identities than what she is doing for the craft of verse novels. 

With the Fire on High is Acevedo’s first and only prose novel. From the first few pages, it is one of those rare books that lets you know that you’re in for a memorable ride. From the first few pages, it is also loud and clear that this is an experienced poet trying her hand at prose. Drawing inspiration from her background in slam and hip-hop, Acevedo’s self-assured voice radiates confidence, and every single word counts. But this lyrical prose, resonant and sparse, sometimes feels too sparse. As chapters seem to end prematurely on unnecessarily triumphant and mechanical poetic bangs that make for bumpy plot development, highly charged emotional moments teeter precariously on the back of a phrase or two. A key turning point in the relationship between Emoni and her ‘Buela happens over the span of a few disappointing phrases that brush over a mammoth reveal. While Acevedo makes it clear that Emoni and her community live difficult lives mined with the multiple obstacles issued by racism and classism, the sparse prose makes for cookie-cutter, sterilised emotions, reactions, and actions that leave you yearning for human situations slightly more true-to-life. At other times, that sparsity works beautifully to bring out the soul-touching quality of scenarios where there is little to say. Beyond street poetry, Acevedo also draws nods to other literary traditions like magical realism. Emoni’s food produces an almost otherworldly experience in those who eat it, calling up long-forgotten memories and reducing them to tears. It is undoubtedly Acevedo’s sparse poetic lyricism that allows those fantastical moments to appear entirely natural.

While there is a romantic love story, and a remarkably considered one at that, it never oversteps its bounds because Acevedo makes it clear that this story is primarily about Emoni and her loved ones. In a genre that is often partial to simplistic happy endings, Acevedo makes the commendable and market-defying decision to leave Emoni’s future with Malachi unresolved. But, perhaps most refreshing, is Acevedo’s handling of Emoni’s grandmother – the unnamed ‘Buela – who works tirelessly and single-handedly to make sure her descendants are cared for in a world that punishes them disproportionately for their mistakes. Rejecting the tired trope of the strong black kween that must carry the world on her back, Acevedo shows us a grandmother that is unapologetic about chasing her desires as she moves from servitude to re-blossomed womanhood. There is a touching mirroring between Emoni and her grandmother: both come of age, arriving at jubilant expressions of Afro-Latinx womanhood.