With the Fire Set on High
Acevedo's recently published YA novel, "With the Fire on High," challenges stereotypes about minority populations and teen motherhood. (Image via Twitter)

In March of last year, a former eighth-grade teacher published a young adult poetry novel. She didn’t know it at the time, but in its first year on the shelves, her book ended up being a massive game-changer in the Latinx literary world. Although Elizabeth Acevedo was versed in slam poetry because she’d been performing since she was 14, her major breakthrough came with the publication of “The Poet X.”

In this book about a 15-year-old girl whose name is Xiomara, X handles the struggles and conflicts in her family by writing poetry in secret — partly because she’s afraid of having to speak her own words out loud, partly because she’d really rather not have her parents find out about it. This novel was filled with proud Latinx content, which is one of the reasons that “The Poet X” now holds over seven nationally recognized awards.

Now, a little over a year later, Acevedo has cooked up another masterpiece called “With the Fire on High,” this time as a novel in prose. On May 7, Acevedo’s sophomore novel was released. In the novel, she centers much the plot around a subject familiar to everyone: food.

In her freshman year of high school, Emoni Santiago gave birth to her daughter. Since then, Emoni, who is now a senior, has matured a lot more quickly than her peers, not only because she has to make decisions for herself, but because she also has to keep her daughter and grandma in her thoughts too.

In response to this stress, Emoni helplessly hopes that she can register for her school’s new culinary arts course, because working as a chef is her ultimate dream. While she knows that it really isn’t the best time to worry about her career, she feels so passionately about her future that she is willing to break any rules to realize her ambitions.

Back in March when the book was still being warmed up, Acevedo gave fans a closer look into part of the creative process by filming her journey of creating the audiobook. Not many authors can say that they narrated their own audiobook, but Acevedo can.

In a video with Epic Reads, Acevedo details what is critical to have an amazing book-recording session. Opening the video with a small tip that she didn’t know before recording, she introduces the camera to the studio that she’s in, along with a few of the sound engineers who make sure she sounds correct.

Acevedo goes on to explain the main character of her new book, Emoni. Acevedo explains that rather than focus her novel on Emoni being pregnant, she writes the story to take place after she has had her baby. The author defended her decision to do so by saying that, unlike many other YA novels, she wanted “With the Fire on High” to focus on Emoni’s life after the birth of her child to emphasize that your dreams don’t have to come to a close when you become a parent.

As a novel about “magic, food, and family,” Acevedo really wanted to home in on the decisions that young people have to make in order to triumph. This idea carries a strong hint of Latinx topics as well, so there is no doubt that “With the Fire on High” will share the success of “The Poet X.”

In an interesting bit of the video, Acevedo compares her two novels. She points out that because “The Poet X” was a novel in verse, its rhythm and cadence was a lot more intentional. In “With the Fire on High,” she says that even though it is a prose text, it still has its poetic moments.

She could have expanded on these poetic pieces, but she really wanted to focus on the plot, character development and language. Because there is no steady beat to the poems in “With the Fire on High” unlike in “The Poet X,” Acevedo has to try especially hard to properly develop distinct character voices so they can come alive. In the novel she feels less like a poet and more like a storyteller guiding you through a cohesive tale.

The video ends with a shot of Acevedo recording a few lines of “With the Fire on High” that allude to the origin of the title. “Some days, when my feelings are like this,” she says, “like a full pot of water with the fire on high, I don’t know what to cook.”

In another interview, Acevedo expounded upon the notes of Afro-Latinx pride in her new work. When “The Poet X” was released, she was shocked to realize how easily relatable the book was to so many people. She points out that specific experiences are necessary to dis­­cuss, and two of those are “being a mother” and “being teen,” because they really help readers to finally be seen.

Another issue Acevedo discusses in her new book is the stigma that surrounds young parents. Many people assume that if someone makes the decision to have a baby at such a young age, they aren’t allowed to have dreams. This is clearly false, and Acevedo challenges this through Emoni and her dreams of becoming a chef.

Acevedo also talks about Tyrone, the young father of Emma, Emoni’s daughter. In the novel, Acevedo subverts the stereotype that if someone is a poor boyfriend then they’ll be be a poor parent; she also also discusses the dialogue surrounding fathers of color — and black men in particular — who are often criticized about the time they are or are not able to spend with their children.

While not a new concept, I appreciate that Acevedo voices her thoughts on these discussions. Sometimes, social stereotypes need to be talked about, but no one wants to speak up. If just a few more authors like Acevedo have similar discussions, there will surely be a shift in the stereotypes that society places on people.

So, if the bold flavors that lie within the pages of Acevedo’s novel pique your curiosity, be sure to keep an eye out at your local book retailer or find where to purchase it on Epic Reads.

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