82 pages • 2 hours readElizabeth Acevedo
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With the Fire on High is a 2019 young adult coming-of-age novel by Dominican American author Elizabeth Acevedo, who won a National Book Award for her 2018 young adult novel, The Poet X. It tells the story of Emoni Santiago, a teenage mother of Puerto Rican descent, and her senior year at a Philadelphia high school. The novel focuses on Emoni’s enrollment in a culinary arts class and her subsequent journey of self-discovery. With the Fire on High won a 2020 Golden Kite Award, presented to children’s book authors and artists. The book is divided into three Parts, each beginning with a recipe. This guide uses the 2019 edition of the novel by Hot Key Books.
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Emoni Santiago is a 17-year-old Afro-Puerto Rican woman from Philadelphia who lives with her grandmother, Gloria or “’Buela,” and her two-year old child, Emma or “Babygirl.” Narrated by the main character, the novel begins with the start of Emoni’s senior year at high school. One of the elective courses offered that year is culinary arts, which involves a trip to Spain. Emoni takes this course because she has a passion for cooking at home. A new male student, Malachi, also selects the culinary arts class. He tries talking to Emoni, but she is cautious at first and rejects him.
The course starts well, as Emoni makes a chocolate pudding with paprika that her teacher, Chef Ayden, praises. Malachi asks Emoni out for ice cream, and she agrees. Things takes a turn for the worse, though, when Ayden asks her to throw away a dish because she did not follow the recipe. As a result of this encounter, she starts skipping the class. Emoni then sees Malachi with another girl from culinary arts, Leslie, at the Burger Joint, where she works part time. Malachi later calls Emoni to explain that he and Leslie are just friends and asks if he can help cook for Angelica, Emoni’s best friend, who is having an anniversary meal. Emoni and Malachi watch television together afterwards.
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Emoni goes to an expensive restaurant, Café Sorrel, with her grandmother. When Emoni notices and asks about an unexpected ingredient in her meal, she gains the attention of the head chef there. This encounter inspires her to re-join the culinary arts class, and Ayden asks her to head the fundraising for the Spain trip. She decides to do this by opening a “mini-restaurant” in an unused part of the school cafeteria. When this venture does not raise enough money, Emoni proposes that the class take over the school’s traditional Winter Dinner and create restaurant-quality food for it.
The Winter Dinner is a success and is attended by the chef from Café Sorrel, who praises it. She gives Emoni her business card. Emoni manages to make up the remaining money for the Spain trip with the help of her aunt from Puerto Rico, who donates $300. Malachi asks Emoni and her family to a Disney on Ice performance. She enjoys the show with Malachi, and afterwards at her house she explains that she likes him but is not ready for sex. She quits her job at the Burger Joint when her hours are cut.
Emoni and her class fly to Madrid, Spain, then get a coach to Sevilla. Emoni is paired with another female chef, Amadi, in Amadi’s restaurant, where she has to cook a dish for customers by herself. She spends more time with Malachi on the trip, and they kiss but again decide to postpone having sex. After returning home, Emoni discovers that she has been accepted into a culinary arts program at Drexel University. She therefore must decide what she’ll do after graduating from high school in terms of paying for college and juggling school with looking after Emma. In the closing chapter of the novel, “Moving Forward,” she decides to do the Drexel program part time while asking for a job at Café Sorrel. The head chef allows her to start working there right away.
By Elizabeth Acevedo
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