Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X is one of our very favorite YA reads of the year, a powerful debut written in verse which shines light on the Latinx experience. So it’s with great excitement that we’re here to offer an exclusive first look at the author’s encore: With the Fire on High.
Acevedo’s second novel centers on teen mom Emoni Santiago, who lives in Philadelphia and traces dreams of turning her talent for cooking into a career. As Acevedo teases of the character, “She has the magic and talent do so, now she just needs to learn to trust both.” This comes on the heels of The Poet X, which followed young Xiomara Batista as she found her voice while coming of age in her Harlem neighborhood. The book has been longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize in the equivalent category.
Here’s the official synopsis for With the Fire on High: “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.”
Acevedo has exclusively shared with EW the cover for With the Fire on High (above), as well as two chapters. Safe to say they’re a potent reminder that this is a writer to watch. Read on below, and pre-order the book ahead of its May 7, 2019 release here.
Excerpt from With the Fire on High, by Elizabeth Acevedo
Part One: The Sour
Babygirl doesn’t even cry when I suck my teeth and undo her braid for the fourth time. If anything, I’m the one on the verge of tears, since at this rate we’re both going to be late.
“Babygirl, I’m sorry. I know it hurts. Mommy just doesn’t want you looking a hot mess.”
She seems unfazed by my apology, probably because thing 1. I’m not braiding tight enough to actually hurt her, (which is why her hair is all loosey lopsided!), thing 2. Babygirl is watching Moana. And she loves Moana. So long as I let her watch Moana she’ll let me play with her hair ’til kingdom come. Thank goodness my friend Angelica lets me use her Netflix account. I lean a little closer to the edge of the sofa so I can snatch up the baby-hairs at the front of her head. This is the hardest part and I have to start the braid tight and small to get it right.
“Emoni, vete. It’s time for you to head out. I’ll fix her hair.”
I don’t even look over at ’Buela standing by the staircase that leads to the two bedrooms upstairs. “I got it, ‘Buela. I’m almost done.”
“You’re going to be late for school.”
“I know but…” I trail off and it turns out I don’t have to say it because in her way ‘Buela always understands.
She walks over and picks up the comb from where I set it on the couch. “You wish you could be the one taking her.”
I nod and bite my bottom lip. I worked so hard to get Babygirl into a good daycare, and despite a long waitlist I kept calling and stopping by and making friends with Mamá Clara, the woman who ran the daycare, until she snuck me into an opening. Now that Babygirl is actually going I’m freaking out. In her entire two years on earth, Babygirl has never not been with family. I braid to the very tip of her hair. The design is some straight backs with a pink hair tie at the end that matches Babygirl’s outfit: little white collared shirt and pink pullover. She looks adorable. I wasn’t able to buy her more than three new outfits for daycare, but I’m glad I splurged on this one.
I pull Babygirl’s chair around so we are face to face, but I catch her trying to sneak a peek at Moana from the corner of her eyes. Even though my chest is tight, I giggle. Babygirl might still be young, but she’s also learning to be real slick.
“Babygirl, Mommy needs to go to school. You make sure you’re nice to the other kids and that you pay attention to Mamá Clara so you learn a lot, OK?” Babygirl nods as if I just gave her the most serious DJ Khaled success speech. I hug her to my stomach, making sure not to nuzzle her too tight and fuzz up the braids I spent an hour doing. With a final kiss on her forehead, I take a deep breath and grab my book bag off the sofa.
“‘Buela, don’t forget her snacks. The daycare said we need to supply snacks every day. Oh, and her juice! You know she gets fussy.” As I walk past ‘Buela, I lean in real hush hush. “And I also packed a little bottle of water. I know she doesn’t like it as much, but I don’t want her only drinking sugary stuff, you know?”
‘Buela looks like she’s trying to swallow a smile as she puts a soft hand on my back and guides me toward the front door.
“Look at you trying to give me lessons on parenting. Nena, please! Like I didn’t raise you! And your father.” ‘Buela gives my back a squeeze, smooths the hair bunned up high on my head. “She’s going to be fine, Emoni. You make sure that you have a good first day of school. Be nice to the other kids. Learn a lot.” I lean against her for a quick second and inhale her signature vanilla scent. “Bendición, ‘Buela.”
“Que Dios te bendiga, nena.” She swats me on the booty and opens the front door. The sounds of West Allegheny Avenue rush in to greet me: cars honking, buses screeching to a stop, rapid Spanglish yelled from the corners as people greet one another, and mothers calling out last-minute instructions to their kids from open windows. The door closes behind me and for a second my breath catches in sync with the lock. Everything my heart loves is behind this one wooden door. I press my ear against it and hear a clap of her hands, then ‘Buela says, in a high, cheery voice, “OK, Baby Emma! Today you’re going to be a big girl!”
I pull the straps of my backpack tighter. Give myself that same pep talk as I race down the stairs: OK, Emoni. Today? Time to be a big girl.
If you asked 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 generic brand 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 left.
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 fast. ‘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 little 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 it was the first time 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 bottled goodness that warms you up 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.