Stop what you’re doing right now and read this excerpt from With the Fire on High, the latest novel from Elizabeth Acevedo. She’s the New York Times bestselling author of the National Book Award, Printz Award, and Pura Belpré Award-winning The Poet X, and now she’s back with a book filled with just as much heart. Basically, Liz is killing it, and her newest protagonist, Emoni, is another epic young woman we absolutely adore.
Emoni is a girl you want to know. She’s strong and loyal to what’s important to her—family. Her daughter and her abuela are everything to her, but life hasn’t always been easy. And so, she finds her solace in the kitchen, a place where she makes magic happen and turns her food into straight-up goodness.
Emoni dreams of working as a chef, but she feels like she has to put her dreams on pause to take care of the important folks in her life—until she receives an opportunity too good to pass up. Is Emoni using excuses to mask her true feelings… fear?
So, you hooked yet? We’ve got two exciting opportunities for you to experience this stunning novel before it hits shelves next week!
Watch the gorgeous trailer, featuring an official excerpt of the book narrated by Elizabeth herself, and then read an exclusive sneak peek below!
With the Fire on High | Official Book Trailer
I wanted to give Babygirl a nice name. The kind of name that doesn’t tell you too much before you meet her, the way mine does. Because nobody ever met a white girl named Emoni, and as soon as they see my name on a résumé or college application they think they know exactly what kind of girl they getting. They know way more about me than they need to know, and shit—I mean, shoot—information ain’t free, so my daughter’s name isn’t going to tell anybody any information they didn’t earn. That’s why I fought Tyrone tooth and nail to name her Emma.
“You just want her name to have the same letters as yours.” Tyrone is a whiner.
“No. I want her name to sound less like either of ours,” I said, and I don’t remember if I kissed Babygirl’s infant cheek or not.
But I know in that moment I felt this huge emotion; I wanted to do whatever I could to give my daughter the best opportunity in the world. And although our names do have similar letters, mine is full of silverware-sharp sounds: E-Mah-Nee. Hers is soft, rolls off the tongue like a half-dreamed murmur.
Anyhow, Tyrone was late on the day I filled out the birth certificate, so Emma it was. I know a name alone can’t guarantee new opportunities, but at the very least it’ll give her a chance to get in the room, to let other people realize she’s someone they want to learn more about.
Angelica waits on the corner for me the way she has since elementary school. Her long dark hair has streaks the same bright red as her lipstick. She shuffles from foot to foot in the tightest leggings I have ever seen on a body.
I stop halfway to her and pretend to do a double take. “Girl, you about to give these boys a show! And it’s only the first day,” I say as she swoops her arm through mine and we walk in the direction of the bus stop.
“Girl, you know I ain’t concerned with those boys. The ladies, on the other hand? I was social-media creeping and the summer did wonders for a lot of these jawns!”
I laugh and shake my head. “Does Laura know what she’s gotten herself into?”
Angelica smiles and for a second she looks like the angel she’s named after. “Aww, my boo knows I only look and don’t touch. I just want her to know I can leave if I want to. I got options!”
Angelica officially came out last year and once she’d dusted the closet lint off her Air Maxes, she never looked back. A couple of months after coming out at home and at school, she met Laura at a graphic design workshop held for teens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her girl Laura is built like the Vikings she says she’s descended from: tall, thick-shouldered, and with an artist’s gentle hands that I knew would take care of my best friend’s heart.
“Man, whatever. I see all your posts about Laura. If you and that girl take another cutesy kissy picture, I’m going to delete my account. Actually, I’m going to hack in and delete yours!”
“Don’t hate, Emoni. Is Tyrone still being a dick?”
I swat her on the arm. “This is why I don’t let you around
Babygirl; you have such a potty mouth.”
“And you don’t?” She gives me one of her pursed-lips looks.
“Yes, but I picked it up from you. And I’ve been working on it.” I accidentally slipped in front of Babygirl a few weeks ago and almost died when I heard her saying “sh-sh-sh” as if practicing the word. I’ve cut out my cursing since.
“How is my niece? I haven’t seen her since . . . when? Saturday?” We laugh. Despite her potty mouth, Angelica is great with Babygirl and always comes in clutch when either ’Buela or I can’t watch her. Now that Babygirl’s two, ’Buela insists that I have to take on more responsibility in raising her. Which I don’t mind, since Babygirl is the coolest kid on the block. It’s just hard juggling work, her, and now the new school year, without ’Buela taking on the big role she took the first two years of her life. And although I don’t say it, I don’t have to; Tyrone is still being a dick—an ass—a prick. Who uses the word prick?
“Hello! Emoni, are you listening?” Angelica snaps her fingers in my face.
“Sorry . . . I spaced out for a second. What’d you say?”
Angelica sighs dramatically. Anytime Angelica sighs, it’s dramatically. “You never listen to me anymore.”
I unhook my arm from hers. “Get out of here with that mess. All I do is listen to you.”
“I was asking about the dinner you left for me and Babygirl when I babysat. What’d you call it?”
“Pollo guisado—stewed chicken. Was it good?” Angelica’s been eating at my house since we were little girls, but since I always tweak what I cook, it’s never the same thing twice. “I thought I might have messed up when I added in the collards at the end. They weren’t in the original recipe.”
“It was so good. I was wondering if you could make it for Laura and me. Six-month anniversary coming up in a month! I was thinking we could do a romantic dinner at my house since my
moms is going to be out of town.”
“Dinner at home is never romantic, Gelly,” I say. The bus pulls up and we climb on with the rest of the people who, like us, are going to school and work near Yorktown and Fairmount and even farther south into Center City.
“Dinner at home will be romantic if it’s catered by you!” We find a place to stand and hold on to the straps above us as the bus begins the jerky ten-minute ride.
“Now I’m a caterer? You’re lucky I love you.”
“No. I’m lucky you love to cook, and you never turn down an opportunity to practice on your friends. Chef Emoni Santiago, next Chopped champion!”
I laugh and pull my phone out to take notes for Gelly’s dinner.
If you ask her to tell it, ’Buela starts with the same story.
I was a little older than Babygirl is now and always following ’Buela into the kitchen. I would sit at the kitchen table eating bootleg Cheerios or rice or something I could pick up with my fingers and shove into my mouth while she played El Gran Combo or Celia Cruz or La Lupe loud on her old-school radio, shimmying her hips while stirring a pot. She can’t remember what made that day different—if my pops, Julio, had been late in arriving on one of his yearly visits from San Juan, or if it’d been a time she’d gotten reprimanded at work for taking too long on someone’s measurements—but this particular day she didn’t turn the radio on and she wasn’t her usual self at the stove. At one point, she must have forgotten I was there because she threw the kitchen rag down on the floor and left. She just walked straight out of the kitchen, crossed the living room, opened the front door, and was gone.
We can’t agree on what it was she’d started cooking. She says it was a stew and nothing that would burn quick, but although my own memory is childhood-fuzzy, I remember it being a pot of moro—the rice and beans definitely something that would soak up water. ’Buela says she just stepped out onto the stoop to clear her head, and when she came back ten minutes later I had pulled the step stool to the stove, had a bunch of spices on the counter, and had my small arm halfway into the pot, stirring.
It goes without saying: She. Had A. Fit. Thought I had been about to burn myself, dinner, or worse, the house. (’Buela would argue that’s not the right order of things, and I know she would have definitely been upset if I hurt myself, but if I burned the house? Girl, there’s no coming back from that.) All that to say, nothing charred. In fact, when ’Buela tasted it (whatever “it” was) she says it was the best thing she’d ever eaten. How it made her whole day better, sweeter. Says a memory of Puerto Rico she hadn’t thought about in years reached out like an island hammock and cradled her close. When she tells the story, it’s always a different simile, but still sweet like that. All I know is she cried into her plate that night. And so at the age of four, I learned someone could cry from a happy memory.
Ever since then ’Buela is convinced I have magical hands when it comes to cooking. And I don’t know if I really have something special, or if her telling me I got something special has brainwashed me into believing it, but I do know I’m happier in the kitchen than anywhere else in the world. It’s the one place I let go and only need to focus on the basics: taste, smell, texture, fusion, beauty.
And something special does happen when I’m cooking. It’s like I can imagine a dish in my head and I just know that if I tweak this or mess with that, if I give it my special brand of sazón, I’ll have made a dish that never existed before. Angelica thinks it’s because we live in the hood, so we never have exactly the right ingredients—we gotta innovate, baby. My aunt Sarah says it’s in our blood, an innate need to tell a story through food. ’Buela says it’s definitely a blessing, magic. That my food doesn’t just taste good, it is good—straight up bottled goodness that warms you and makes you feel better about your life. I think I just know that this herb with that veggie with that meat plus a dash of eso ahí will work.
And that if everything else goes wrong, a little squeeze of lime and a bottle of hot sauce ain’t never hurt nobody.
“All right, girlie, see you at lunch?” Angelica says as we stop outside my advisory. Advisory is Schomburg’s fancy name for homeroom.
“Yeah, save me a seat by the windows if you get there first. Oh, and grab me—”
“Some applesauce if they look like they’re running out. I know, Emoni.” Angelica smirks and walks away. And she does know me.
I love the school applesauce—extra cinnamony.
Ms. Fuentes has been my advisor since my first day at Schomburg Charter, and her classroom has never changed. Lady still has the same motivational sign above her door: You’re the Author of Your Own Life Story. That sign has stared at us twenty advisory students from the time when we walked in as little-bitty freshmen.
And even though it doesn’t make me roll my eyes anymore, I still think it’s corny. Nonetheless, Advisory is my favorite class period of the day, even though it’s also the shortest; it’s where Ms. Fuentes takes attendance, makes announcements, and gives us college prep and “character-building” exercises. But most important, it’s the only class that has had the same students in it since freshman year. So we can talk here the way we can’t in any other class.
Ms. Fuentes looks up from the classroom window shades to see me staring at her inspirational sign. “Ms. Santiago, how was your summer?” she says as she adjusts the shades so they let in more light. She does that, the Mr. This and Ms. That. Has since we walked into her classroom at fourteen. I sit at my desk in the second row, closest to the door. It was clutch when I was pregnant and had to rush to the bathroom every five minutes, and I haven’t switched seats since.
I shrug. “Good. Got a job. Yours?”
Ms. Fuentes stops mid-shade-fussing to side-eye me. “You’re always so loquacious. It’s refreshing to have a student who believes in something other than monosyllables.” But she’s smiling. She’s never said it, but I know I’m one of her favorites. Other students begin trickling into the room.
I smile back at her. “Aw, Ms. Fuentes, I see you worked on your sarcasm this summer. It’s gotten so much better.”
She stops messing with the windows and walks closer to my desk. She says softly, “How’s Emma? Where’d you get a job?”
“She’s real good, Ms. Fuentes. And the job is at the Burger Joint.” Which, although it’s spelled all official, I still pronounce “jawn.” They think just because the Temple area has changed some that they gotta be fancy, but a burger jawn is a burger jawn regardless of how you spell it. “You know the spot near the university? I work there after school two days during the week and four hours every weekend.”
Her pretty, manicured nails tap on my desk and I imagine she’s tracing her finger along a mental map of North Philly.
“Yes, I think I’ve passed it before. Are you going to be able to juggle everything while also working there?”
I drop my eyes to my desk. “I should be okay. It’s not that many hours.”
“I see. . . . I know senior year is already stressful; try not to take on too much.”
And I don’t know what to say. It’s not that many hours; in fact, I wish it were more. The cash I get from those little checks helps with groceries, Babygirl’s expenses, and whatever ’Buela’s disability money doesn’t cover.
My silence doesn’t faze Ms. Fuentes at all. “I have a surprise for you when the bell rings—a class I think you would love.”
She squeezes my shoulder before giving her attention to Amir Robinson from the Strawberry Mansion area. “Welcome back, Mr. Robinson! Jesus, but you grew over the summer!” Ms. Fuentes walks away, calling out, “Ms. Connor, I dusted off your favorite seat in the back row just for you. . . .”
Yup. I was that girl your moms warns you about being friends with. And warns you about becoming. Not even done with freshman year of high school and already a belly that extended past my toes. It’s a good thing Babygirl was born in August since I probably would have failed out if I had to go to school the last month of my pregnancy. And the thing with being pregnant as a teen is that your body isn’t the only thing that changes. It wasn’t just that I always had to pee, or that my back always hurt. It wasn’t only that my feet ached and I cooked the funkiest meals (they were still so good they’d make you twerk something, but definitely off the wall: macaroni jalapeño burgers and Caribbean jerk lamb tacos).
The biggest changes weren’t the ones that happened to my body at all.
It was that ’Buela had to scrounge up more sewing jobs to supplement the money she gets from disability, that the viejos playing dominoes on the corner shook their heads when I walked past, that dudes on the train smirked at my swollen boobs but wouldn’t give up their seats; that I had to take a million make-up tests for the days I was at doctor appointments or too morning-sick to make it to school.
When they first learned I was pregnant, Principal Holderness and the guidance counselor called a special meeting in the main office. ’Buela had to come into school and they called in Ms. Fuentes, too. Principal Holderness and the counselor offered to transfer me to an alternative high school program specifically for pregnant teens. But Ms. Fuentes didn’t play that. She said switching me midyear into a new school would be a hard adjustment, and that since the program had a decelerated curriculum it would affect my graduating on time. I know she called ’Buela beforehand to discuss it, and they must have come up with a plan, because ’Buela was quick to chime in, saying my staying at Schomburg Charter would be “pivotal for my retention and matriculation.” The sentence sounded as if she’d rehearsed it, circling her mouth over those words in the mirror to make sure she got it right, and I know it was Ms. Fuentes who had explained to ’Buela what that meeting would be about. I didn’t even know what those words meant at the time, but I know now Ms. Fuentes was fighting to help keep me a regular kid for as long as possible.
I’ve always been small: physically petite, which made people think I had a small personality, too. And then, all of a sudden, I was a walking PSA: a bloated teen warning, taking up too much space and calling too much attention.
“I’ve got two announcements,” Ms. Fuentes says.
“Ms. Fuentes,” Amir calls out without raising his hand. “You better not say you leaving.”
“No, no. Nothing like that, Mr. Robinson,” she says, and we all slump a bit in relief. “The first announcement is that there are going to be changes to the schedule. In August some new faculty members were hired, and needless to say, it has affected class schedules. There are new elective courses being offered for seniors, and I’m going to pass around the new course listing. The second announcement is about a new student.”
We all groan. In almost every class I’ve ever had, students come and go throughout the entire year and nobody cares. But Advisory is different. Nobody wants to talk around no strangers that aren’t going to last long.
“I know, I know. I’ve fought the administration tooth and nail to keep Advisory small and with the same students, but there just isn’t room anywhere else. I’ve met the student and I think he’ll be a great fit. He’s registering today, but when he comes in tomorrow make sure you’re all on your best behavior. I just wanted to give you a heads-up. Now, let’s talk about electives.”
Ms. Fuentes smiles and slides a handout onto each of our desks.
“Look carefully at this list, think about what class is the best fit, and get back to me tomorrow.”
We all pick up our bags at the ringing bell. I wave to Ms. Fuentes on my way out, looking at the long list of electives. The old favorites are still there: Photography, Creative Writing, Woodshop, Dance. And there, tucked at the bottom of the list:
Culinary Arts: Spain Immersion.
The class title balloons and rises above the rest, growing in my vision until I can’t make out the other words. In all my time at Schomburg Charter there has never been a culinary arts elective—even though the school has both a classroom kitchen and an unused café from years past. I imagine this class is going to fill right up.
And for a second, excitement bubbles inside me like a simmering pot. I can finally take an official cooking class, and one with a specific regional focus. And then I remember, it’s senior year. The responsible thing to do would be to stay with my current schedule and keep my study hall. Not add another class or more work. I turn down the simmer of excitement until it dies.
Two periods later, I meet Angelica at the cafeteria entrance and she eyes the line as if she’s trying to find someone who will let us cut. “Did you see the graphic design elective? You should take it with me!”
I shake my head. Girl knows I’m not doing no damn—dang— graphic design. “Angelica, we both know I can’t even stick-figure draw.”
She stops craning her neck and we get on the back of the line, where I rummage through my bag.
“Your stick figures are beautiful. Don’t hate on yourself. But no class can compete with the culinary arts class, right? That class was made for you.”
When she sees me pulling out my phone, she presses her hand to lower mine. “Girl, what are you doing? The summer must have canceled your brain. You know your phone will get taken if a security guard sees you pull it out. They live for that shit.”
“’Buela has a doctor’s appointment at four thirty and I may not have time to check in later. I just wanted to send a quick text to see how Babygirl’s drop-off went.”
Angelica changes sides with me to cover my body from any security guards or teachers who might be watching. The cafeteria ladies see me, but the only thing they care about is lunch portions and keeping the line moving. I check to make sure no one from the daycare called, send a text to ’Buela, and drop my phone back into my bag.
“Thanks for covering me.”
“I’m going to need to you do the same thing when I send this thirst trap pic to Laura.”
I shake my head with a smile. We pay for our lunch and make our way back to the table by the windows. One thing about Angelica: she’s a pit bull once she sinks her teeth into an idea. And she’s right back on discussing electives as soon as we grab a seat.
“Emoni, I see you doing that thing.”
I groan and take a bite of my sandwich. I want to save my yummy applesauce for last. “What thing?” I say around a mouthful of turkey. If they put a little chutney on the bread, or a nice garlic spread and toasted it, this sandwich would be bomb. My fingers itch to take out my phone to write down a recipe idea.
“That martyr thing you do when you want something but convince yourself you can’t have it because of Babygirl, or ’Buela.”
I swallow. Is she right? Is that what I’m doing? Sometimes your girl reads you better than anyone else. “I just wish I had it figured out like you, Gelly. The girlfriend, the art school dreams, the grades.”
She points her spork at me. “You’re stronger than anyone I know, Emoni Santiago. It’s senior year, the last time we get to just be teenagers. If you can’t try something new now, when can you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I’d like to learn how to cook food from Spain.”
Behind her glasses, Angelica’s eyes get wide. “Girl, you know it’s not just learning to cook food from Spain, it’s learning to cook food in Spain. My advisor told me there’s a weeklong trip in the spring.”
Schomburg has offered immersion classes before. A preColumbian history class that took students to an archeological site in Mexico, a fashion design class that took students on a tour of old textile mills in New England. There’s never been a class I wanted to take, or a trip I thought I could afford.
And you have no business taking this class when you could have a study hall, and you can’t afford this trip either, Emoni. But I don’t say anything out loud to Angelica. I just take another bite of my sandwich, close my eyes, and savor, because I can’t think of a single way to make my life more how I imagine it, but I can imagine a hundred ways to make this sandwich better. And sometimes focusing on what you can control is the only way to lessen the pang in your chest when you think about the things you can’t.