With the Fire on High
by Elizabeth Acevedo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Contemporary teen fiction and I have a shaky past. With the Fire on High has some great moments; unfortunately it also has some cliche writing. Given what else is out there for contemporary teen novels; this is (finally) one I can straight-up endorse. Written by Elizabeth Acevedo, this is an own-voices story about a teenage girl who ended up pregnant. Unlike most teenage pregnancy books it's not about her time being pregnant. Instead it starts about 1 year after that point when she is trying to: attend high school, have a part-time job, enjoy extracurricular activities (in her case cooking), retain friends, consider a boyfriend, and take care of an almost toddler. All these thing combined turn into quite the life for our lead gal.
As with all contemporary teen stories there is a love interest. A cute, modest 'new kid' to the school. He is charming and completely focused on our lead girl; even after he learns she has a daughter. I want to caution everyone out there, this guy is a pretty rare breed. He doesn't push for physical contact, he's far too considerate and nice at times, and overall just feels like a unicorn among the scum of other boys available to our lead girl. I hate to tell you but he is a unicorn in real-life. Yes there are amazing boys and men out there; but, on average, you don't meet one this perfect during those tough teenage years. Why? Because few people are truly selfless as teenagers. Although I adored this boy's character and loved how sweet he was; I do question if it doesn't set-up an unrealistic expectation for teen girls reading this?
Reality of Paying Dues
Acevedo does an excellent job of helping our lead girl, and the reader, to understand what it really means to pay one's dues. Very little falls into our leading gal's lap (except a baby). She falls down and has some rough days, she laments being a teenage mom (even though she, of course, loves her daughter wholly), and she realizes that hard work is really, well, hard. I liked this portrayal that felt more realistic than most regarding the lack of sleep due to early hour and late nights; and overall worn down feeling that comes from paying ones dues. That's not to say that some miracle things don't happen in the story. They do; but it's easier to accept them when you know the recipient has worked hard.
Uncomfortable Family Issues
Here's where With the Fire on High truly shines. This is a messy family situation. A dead Mom from childbirth, a non-existent Dad, a Grandmother whose tired, a distance Aunt, and no siblings are all aspects of our leading gal's life that make up her disjointed family. I loved how Acevedo shows genuine struggles that adults have, how they are perceived by teenagers, and eventually how everyone starts to understand one another. It's important that we remind children and teens that adults are not perfect. This is something I wish I had better understood as a child. I blamed my parents for many things because I thought they were supposed to know everything. The reality is very different. It helps that a teenage Mom knows very little and so they can start to appreciate how difficult being a parent can be. The ending of this story has a very poignant moment that I think is perfect for any teen (or adult) that is struggling to understand why their family member acts a certain way. It reminds the reader that sometimes it's not at all what you think and the only way to learn that is by open, honest communication.
The cutest part of this story is easily the cooking references. There are a couple adorable recipes listed that include outrageously unspecific measurements. Our leading gal uses cooking and food to console herself. It's always great when someone's 'feel better' activity contributes in a tangible way (I often wish mine was cleaning and not reading, lol); and given the circumstances of our teenage Mom it feels perfect that she's not only a good cook; but puts her heart and soul into it.
I could tell you more about my frustrations with some of the writing in this; including the use of the let go the breathe I didn't even know I was holding line (ugh). But honestly those feel small in the overall context of what Acevedo delivers in With the Fire on High. Throughout the course of the story we are reminded that our leading gal is a teenager, doing her best and fighting through exhaustion. Given this is reality for many teenagers (and adults) it feels genuine. I think many events in the story are probably taken from real-life events. Whether ones Acevedo had herself, or those she has been told about by others. This is the perfect way to write a contemporary story, in my opinion, as it leaves reality solidly on the table.
It's rare I find a contemporary story I would recommend; but this is one of them. It's icing on the cake that it happens to be written by a black woman about a black girl. I hope more stories like this can bubble to the surface that speak of the reality of living in 'the ghetto' (as put by the leading gal in this story), paycheque to paycheque, whilst also trying to improve your life situation. The more we understand each others thoughts and struggles the more we can have empathy for one another.
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