Following the success of her National Book Award– and Printz Award–winning debut novel, The Poet X, which was written in verse, Elizabeth Acevedo addresses teen motherhood and identity in her sophomore effort, With the Fire on High (HarperTeen, out now). “In the children’s category, we have books where [teens] are trying to decide whether to keep a child, but I really wanted to look at a character who had already made that decision. I wanted to explore what happens next,” Acevedo says about the inspiration for her new novel.
The book follows 17-year old Afro–Puerto Rican and African-American Emoni Santiago as she balances motherhood, school, an unsatisfying fast-food job, and her dreams of a career in the culinary arts. Emoni is in her senior year of high school when the story picks up, and she isn’t sure if she has the same kinds of choices that her classmates have because she’s also a parent,” Acevedo says. “I wanted to treat this subject matter with dignity and tenderness. I wanted a young woman of color to triumph and have hope. I wanted to turn the tropes about inner-city women with kids on their head.”
Emoni’s mother died in childbirth, and Emoni’s relationship with her father, who lives in Puerto Rico, is tenuous. “When you grow up like that, there’s a longing for memory and for an inheritance of stories about who you are,” Acevedo says. To explore this experience, she plays with Emoni’s skill as a chef whose creations evoke nostalgia and memory for the eater. “Emoni’s food doesn’t bring up feelings for her, but that’s what she’s looking for,” Acevedo says. “She’s trying to find history and create a mythology of who she is through her cooking, but she can only evoke that sense of memory for everyone else. Her desire, her searching, goes into what she cooks. She wants to remember, wants to know, wants to use an ingredient as a way to look back and create a window into the past.”
Although she is best known for her poetry, Acevedo decided to write With the Fire on High in prose. “Emoni’s story has a lot more action [than The Poet X], the conflicts are different, and there are a lot of characters,” she says. “I find it incredibly hard to pull off that kind of cast and that kind of narrative arc through verse because there’s a lot that you lose.” Verse, she says, can work for settings but not for long descriptions. She also wanted to have more dialogue in this novel because readers “need to hear how Emoni speaks and code-switches.”
Acevedo hopes that Emoni’s journey shows readers that it’s possible to “figure things out on their own terms,” but she also expresses hope that readers will be encouraged to look at the communities around them with grace and a righteous fury that asks how these places can be made better. “My books do highlight the gender roles, gentrification, and poverty of specific areas,” Acevedo says. “I want readers to question what it means that we have all this brilliance in parts of the country that goes unnoticed. It happens that both of my characters are brilliant and talented at the things they love to do, but I didn’t do that to show them as exceptions. They are not exceptional in these ways; they are one of many kids who have that spark. Let’s not forget these young people. Let’s not deny them what they need: stories that are full of love and are gentle and hopeful and funny.”