Better late to the Elizabeth Acevedo party than never. It is 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, playing an instrumental role in making poetry cool again. But as is usually the case for authors of colour whose ability to write ‘well’ 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. In The Atlantic, she says:

I wish I was asked about how specific the line breaks were to ensure that the eye ended on particular words … about why birds [reappear throughout The Poet X] … and what it means for [Xiomara] to be in a biology class where she’s thinking about evolving.

Sandwiched in between her debut The Poet X and the recent Clap When You Land, With the Fire on High is the coming-of-age story of Emoni, a Puerto Rican-American teen mother and senior growing up in Philadelphia with her endlessly supportive grandmother and baby girl, Emma. In a world that tells Afro-Latinx women that they are nothing, Emoni is just like The Poet X’s Xiomara: exceptional. A girl of many actions and few words who has no patience for the classroom, Emoni’s talent is in the kitchen where she makes magic with everything she touches.

When the fall semester brings with it new culinary arts course, an accompanying class trip to Spain, and the dimpled transfer student Malachi, Emoni’s dreams and desires seem closer than ever. But with an infant girl to tend to and an aging ‘Buela who has seen life pass her by raising her son, her son’s daughter, and her granddaughter’s daughter, Emoni does what she believes to be right: she puts her responsibilities first and herself last.

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.

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 poetic bangs, 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.

Though 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 emotions, reactions, and actions that leave you yearning for human situations slightly more true to life. When it works, that sparsity works beautifully to highlight soulful quality of scenarios where there is little to say.

Apart from slam poetry, Acevedo also 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, without a doubt, Acevedo’s sparse poetic lyricism that allows those fantastical moments to appear entirely natural.

That naturalness is also apparent in the final search for resolutions. Acevedo resists the happy endings and easy answers that the young adult genre often facilitates. We, like Emoni, are left to trust that her absent father will keep his promise to help her through the difficult school-to-college transition. While there is a romantic love story, it never oversteps its bounds: this story is primarily about Emoni and her loved ones. In a genre that is partial to happy endings, Acevedo makes the market-defying decision to leave Emoni’s future with Malachi unresolved.

Acevedo resists the happy endings and easy answers that the young adult genre often facilitates.

Even more 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 subtle but touching mirroring between Emoni and her grandmother: both come of age at different points in their lives, arriving at jubilant expressions of Afro-Latinx womanhood and troubling what is expected of young adult novels.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her on Twitter @verybookishjane.

ELIZABETH ACEVEDO is the New York Times bestselling author of The Poet X, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Michael L. Printz Award, the Pura Belpré Award, the Carnegie medal, the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, and the Walter Award. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion, and resides in Washington, DC with her love. You can find her on her website.

Elizabeth Acevedo’s only prose novel is a culinary, coming-of-age delightWith The Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Published by Quill Tree on 7 May 2019
Genres: YA, Afro-Latinx, Coming-of-age, Romance, #ownvoices
Pages: 392
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Bookshop.org
Goodreads
three-stars

With her daughter to care for and her abuela to help support, high school senior Emoni Santiago has to make the tough decisions, and do what must be done. The one place she can let her responsibilities go is in the kitchen, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness. Still, she knows she doesn’t have enough time for her school’s new culinary arts class, doesn’t have the money for the class’s trip to Spain -- and shouldn’t still be dreaming of someday working in a real kitchen. But even with all the rules she has for her life -- and all the rules everyone expects her to play by -- once Emoni starts cooking, her only real choice is to let her talent break free.