“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.”
Emoni Santiago is a high school senior, but she’s already got the world on her shoulders — or in her arms. As a teen mom, Emoni works hard to support her daughter alongside her grandmother, juggling school and her job at the local burger spot. She knows what needs to get done and how to handle them. But the kitchen is the one place where she can let all of that go and just be. When a new culinary arts class becomes available to her at school, along with a trip to Spain that seems like a dream come true, Emoni is suddenly faced with a whole new set of tough decisions to make.
Just when I thought my love of Elizabeth Acevedo couldn’t get any bigger, she goes and makes me feel seen in the ways I didn’t know I needed.
I absolutely adored The Poet X. I read it in nearly one sitting and sobbed most of the way through. It was one of the first times I saw a character closer to my background in a book. In her latest work, Acevedo hit even closer to home with Emoni Santiago, a half black, half Puerto Rican teenager in Philadelphia.
First of all, let’s talk about the writing. This novel is written in prose, unlike her last that was written in verse. Something about that format really works in delivering the punches that gutted me throughout The Poet X, so I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous going into this one. The writing felt a bit simpler outside of verse, but in no way less magical. Acevedo lets the characters and the story do most of the enchanting, sprinkling in some beautiful quotes like sazón that made my breath hitch and my heart ache for reasons that were definitely not always sad.
“To this day, whenever I’ve served someone maduros they end up crying, teardrops falling onto their plates for reasons they can’t explain; and I can’t eat them myself without weeping, without a phantom ghost pain twinging between my legs.”
I loved Emoni so much. She’s endured so much, not just from the sheer fact of undergoing a pregnancy at such a young age, but from her peers who’ve judged her for it, and from the outsiders who will always look at her differently for the same reason. Yet she exudes nothing but confidence. Emoni points out several times that while these reactions may get annoying or even hurtful, she refuses be ashamed because she loves her daughter. She knows that her own subject position has changed now that she’s a mother, and she handles each situation she’s presented with with such grace, even if she knows it’s not always easy. Emoni’s abuela, who she calls ‘Buela, (I have a nickname for my Abuelita too – “Abs” – and it made me happy to see I wasn’t the only one!) is so incredibly supportive of her while still maintaining boundaries that she knows Emoni needs in order to be the best mother she can be. She’s tough, but loving and gentle all at the same time. She supports her granddaughter in every way she can while not coddling her and giving her the space to figure things out on her own. Emoni’s best friend, Angelica, is the supportive best friend we all need. She’s loud and excited and ready to shake up the world with her graphic design talents. She’s a take-no-shit girl who’ll do anything for Emoni. Malachi, the new transfer student, is already one of my favorite guys in YA. This kid is the definition of respectful. He’s kind, charming, and most of all, respects Emoni’s boundaries and never downplays any of her emotions or actions the way other guys, bookish or otherwise, tend to do. The thing I loved about all of the characters was their ability to communicate with one another in a healthy way, and the light in which these actions were painted. I never had to worry about there being miscommunication based off of the smallest things because they knew to respect each other enough to work things out.
Another thing I loved about this book was the handling of Emoni being a teen mother. So many books treat teen pregnancy as the end of the world, the end of a girl’s life, the Worst Thing to Ever Happen™. This book treats baby Emma not as a lesson to learn, but as more family to love. It doesn’t shy away from the challenges Emoni has faced as a result of getting pregnant as a teenager, but it doesn’t condemn her by framing her as having no choices, either — she just has to make different ones now.
Perhaps my favorite thing about this novel was the way cultural identity was talked about. Emoni is half black, half Puerto Rican. The history of the island makes this identity even more interesting, and Emoni makes sure she reminds everyone that no matter which “half” of her you’re referring to, she’s black on both sides.
“ ‘My father is Puerto Rican and he’s darker than my mom was, and her whole family is straight-from-the-Carolinas Black. And her hair was just as curly as mine. Not all Black women, or Latinas, look the same. […] And yes, I’m Black on both sides. Although my Puerto Rican side speaks Spanish, and my American side speaks English.’ ”
She talks about the history of slavery on the island, her insecurity in not speaking “enough” Spanish and feeling less Boricua for it, and the validity of her identities. I’m so glad this was brought up, because I feel like there are lots of misconceptions about what a Latinx should look like, not just in various countries but even from the same island. Plus, we don’t see as many Puerto Rican MCs (bless you, Adam Silvera) and seeing this reminder of the island’s history was so welcomed. I also appreciated that she wasn’t born on the island, yet still held it close to her heart and kept it as a part of who she was as anything else. Navigating that identity can be hard when people tell you you need to be island-born to claim that part of you, but Emoni embraces it fully and wholeheartedly.
And the references to her Puerto Rican side were what had me wiping tears away constantly — even as I’m writing this, I can feel them welling up. There are the more obvious things, like mentions of artists like Marc Anthony and El Gran Combo, and the little things, like the plastic on the furniture or the implication that the wrath of a Puerto Rican grandmother is not one you want to mess with (in case you don’t know: it’s absolutely true). Perhaps most of all, though, it was the food. The glimpses of Emoni’s recipes, island food remixed to her own style, had me missing the feel of the sun on my skin in Puerto Rico. Emoni’s cooking is said to be magic, something that makes people remember the things they hold dear to their heart, touching a part of them they may have not seen for years. Even reading this did the same for me. I haven’t been to the island in nearly 14 years now, and my ache to return and learn more about my roots grows with each passing second. I could practically taste Emoni’s food, a mix of arroz y mis sueños pasados.
I’m incredibly thankful to HarperTeen for providing a review copy to me via Edelweiss. I loved reading about Emoni and her family and friends and big dreams, and I have no doubt this will spark something in the hearts of everyone who reads it.
A definite 5/5 stars!
With the Fire on High hits shelves on May 7, 2019!
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