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Local poet and author Elizabeth Acevedo won the National Book Award in 2018 for her debut novel “The Poet X.” Written in verse, the book centered on the life of a teenage poet. Now, in her second novel, Acevedo gives us a teenage chef. This time writing in prose, Acevedo takes us into the mind and heart of a teenager struggling with how to follow her dreams — and whether she should.
“Some days, when my feelings are like this, like a full pot of water with the fire on high, I don’t know what to cook. Plans and ideas escape my mind and instead I let my heart and hands take control…”
Acevedo joins us to discuss her newest work of young adult fiction — and her background as a poet and Prince George’s County teacher.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Elizabeth Acevedo Poet, National Book Award Winner for "The Poet X"
Review | After her National Book Award win, Elizabeth Acevedo returns with another indelible teen heroine
"With the Fire on High" could have been a caricature. A teen mom raising a child in poverty, with her own mother dead and father absent. It could have been a story weighed down with gravitas. Or a fairy tale - the young mother from North Philly who dreams of being a chef.
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Local poet and author Elizabeth Acevedo won the National Book Award in 2018 for her debut novel "The Poet X." Written in verse, Acevedo's work of young adult fiction centered on the life of a teenage poet. Now, in her second novel she gives us a teenage chef. "With the Fire on High" it's called. It lets us into the mind of Emoni Santiago, a teen mom struggling to follow her dreams. And so joining us to discuss this is Elizabeth Acevedo. I mentioned she's a National Book Award winner. I should've also mentioned she's a Poetry Slam champion. Good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.
ELIZABETH ACEVEDOHey, Kojo, it's good to be here.
NNAMDICongratulations. You have not one but two novels on the New York Times list of young adult bestsellers. I do want to talk about your first novel though, the National Book Award-winning "Poet X," but first, can you tell us about "With the Fire on High," which published earlier this month, what is this story about?
ACEVEDOSo "With the Fire on High" is the story of Emoni Santiago, who is an Afro-Puerto Rican teenager growing up in Philadelphia, who is also a teen mom. And it's the story of how she comes to her aspirations of wanting to be a chef and yet feeling like maybe she can't do that, because of a decision she made when she was pretty young, which was to have her child.
NNAMDIEmoni is passionate about cooking. Why did you make her a chef? Do you cook?
ACEVEDOI do like to cook. I think I love the creativity of being in the kitchen, of coming up with new recipes. I like that unlike writing, you are not trying to immortalize it. (laugh) You are literally trying to get rid of it as soon as possible. And so it's creativity, but with an endgame that's very quick and just to nourish the people you love. And I wanted to think about how food can be a type of storytelling. This girl, who is black American from North Carolina and also Afro-Puerto Rican and this fusion of cultures, how does her food reflect that and what is the story she can tell because of her ancestry?
NNAMDIThat's fascinating. I never thought about that before, how cooking is so unlike writing, (laugh) because writing you hope will last permanently. Cooking you do with the expressed purpose of it disappearing.
ACEVEDOMm-hmm, and yet you spend so much time. I'll spend hours in the kitchen for a 25-minute meal. (laugh)
NNAMDIBut you love watching it disappear to, don't you?
ACEVEDOI'll sit there and just, like, gaze on my husband, like, do you love it? Yeah, like I'm the worst cook, because I need affirmation. (laugh)
NNAMDII'd like you to read a passage from this book, from the chapter, "That Girl."
ACEVEDO"That Girl. Yep, I was that girl your moms warn 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 baby girl 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.
ACEVEDOIt 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 that were still so good they make you torque something, but definitely off the wall. Macaroni jalapeno burgers and Caribbean Jerk land tacos. The biggest changes weren't the ones that happened to my body at all."
NNAMDIElizabeth Acevedo, she's a National Book Award winner. She's reading from her most recent novel. It's called "With the Fire on High." What do you look for in young adult novels? We don't get a lot of teen pregnancy stories that focus on what happens after. What's it like to raise a child when you're just a teenager? Why was this the story you wanted to tell?
ACEVEDOYou now, I've been lucky enough to be an educator in several different capacities and have had young women and young men in my classrooms, who have children. And for me, you know, I write a lot about shame. Even "The Poet X" is a book about shame and the shame that people try to impress upon us based on our bodies, on our cultures, on our demographics. And this was a group of folks that I thought, you know, where are the stories that treat young people, who are parents with dignity, who talk about how community can come together, who talk about intergenerational family structures that step in and ensure that the youngest of the group is held up.
ACEVEDOAnd so I just wanted to write a feel good love story with an unlikely character, that when you think about a teen mom growing up in poverty who is a black kid, you don't think she's going to be a heroine. You don't think, you know, she's going to triumph and you're going to laugh and you're going to love her. You know, you don't often imagine that and yet here's this kiddo, who is magical, whose food is literally magic and how often do we dismiss young people, who have all kinds of talents, because of what we perceive they are, you know, based off of like a quick little synopsis.
NNAMDIAnd the fact that she likes the fact that it was born in August so that she didn't have to drop out of school, (laugh) which I guess that makes up for having to walk around in the July and August summer heat carrying that baby.
ACEVEDOWhen I had to create the timeline I was like, okay, how is this going to work? And it's like, this is probably the best month. (laugh)
NNAMDIBecause I have sons, who were born on August 31st so I distinctly remember how my wife was walking around in the heat (laugh) carrying those babies. I'm wondering about the inspiration behind your characters and how much your own students affected these depictions. You taught eighth grade English in Prince George's County, Maryland. How did that time teaching influence your writing? And you've taught in other places too.
ACEVEDOI mean, I think a lot about what is the book that a young person could pick up and know it loves them? Not the author, not the character, the book, that the book is holding them, that the book cares about the experience they have out there reading. And I think it was watching my students struggling with reading, struggling with connecting with books that really made me take this mindset of, there's a certain way that you hold your hand out to a young person and say, come hang out with me. I have something to tell you.
ACEVEDOAnd so I take that into account pretty often and, you know, I've been lucky enough to do a lot of workshops. I do about 80 school events in the school year. I travel all over the country to do that and so I meet a lot of young people. And they all have different needs on what they look for in a book, but for me that same kind of wanting to be invited in and wanting to be carried throughout -- and not that I make it easy. I make them do work, but that that the story is one that they know, okay, I trust this story. I trust this story is going to take me to an ending where I feel nourished.
NNAMDIThat question, where are the books about us, has spurred you forward. I know when I was a teenager, what I was interesting in was, am I in this book?
NNAMDIAnd, that was very rare in those days, but why is that important that students see their own experiences reflected in literature? What happens when they do?
ACEVEDOI mean, I think if we have a literary cannon in this country and we keep putting forth the same names and the same type of stories, then we are leaving an entire sect of society thinking that they are not allowed to be in literature, they're not allowed to write literature and they're not presented in ways that feel true. You know, the numbers of characters of color have gone up in years. There are more books with characters of color. The number of writers of color has not changed significantly.
ACEVEDOAnd so when we are thinking about, okay, who is telling these stories and what is the research and the work that they've done to sit in these communities and to sit with these folks in order to tell this story, you know, I have a lot of questions. And I think students know. They know when there is a story that depicts a character that feels like this is of us and this is ours. And I remember the first time, you know, I read a Dominican-American character and I was like, holy crap, like this is (laugh) -- you know, this is me. And it wasn't the exact same story, it wasn't the exact same kind of character, but it was still close enough that I felt seen.
ACEVEDOAnd especially for demographics of people, who feel like they are invisible except in moments of danger where they're hyper visible, how do we show, you know, young people of color as heroes?
NNAMDIYour first book "The Poet X" was set in New York City. "With the Fire on High" is set in Philadelphia. You are a resident of Washington, D.C. When are you going to write a novel that's set in the District of Columbia?
ACEVEDOI have an idea. I worked at the adjudicated youth center in Northeast D.C. for several years and I've had this idea I've been toying with. I love D.C. and I just want to make sure that the story is right for this setting. (laugh) You know, every story has -- the setting is a big part. I think in my books the setting is often almost a character. And so I have to find something that matches with what I want to say about D.C. in this moment, the different neighborhoods of this city and what's happening here. And so I'm trying to meld all of that, but I promise it's coming. (laugh)
NNAMDIYou know, in D.C. we feel very possessive (laugh) about our city so you got to get it right. (laugh)
NNAMDI"The Poet X" was written in verse. "With the Fire on High" is written in prose. Why the change up?
ACEVEDOYou know I didn't want to be backed into a corner as a particular kind of writer, but also I think a story tells you what it needs. "With the Fire on High" has a lot of characters. It has several different setting shifts. It's a lot of dialogue in order to get the voice. Verse doesn't hold all of that well. Verse is mostly about interiority. I would say 65 percent of "The Poet X" is in her head. There's not really much happening except for her feeling and reacting. That wouldn't have worked as well with this story and so, you know, I match the writing to what I need to do in order to get across the point.
NNAMDIWell, your words still, in my view, veer toward poetry. Can you read the passage, when Emoni talks about her home in North Philadelphia?
ACEVEDOSure. "I come from a place that's as sweet as the freshest berry, as sour as curdled milk where we dream of owning mansions and leaving the hood where we couldn't imagine having been raised anywhere else. People wonder why I walk so hard, why I smile so rarely at strangers, why a mean mug and carry grit like loose change in my pocket. And everyone in Philadelphia reps their hood just like me.
ACEVEDOOne of the first things you ask and learn about someone is where they stay. Where we come from leaves its fingerprints all over us and if you know how to read the signs of a place, you know a little bit more about who someone is. And me, I'm pure Fair Hill, but I also got more than one city, one hood inside me. And anyone who wants to get to know me has to know how to appreciate the multiple skylines."
NNAMDIElizabeth Acevedo reading from her most recent novel. It's called "With the Fire on High." We got a Tweet from Helen who said, just finished "With the Fire on High" last night, adored the story. Emoni is such a loveable and complex character. I'm recommending it to everyone I come across. Helen, thank you very much for your Tweet. On now to Amanda in Falls Church, Virginia. Amanda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AMANDAHi. I just wanted to say growing up -- I'm white and I'm 47, so growing up a lot of the kids and kids books that I read were also white. And I want to say how important it is even like to see other people's experiences, other races experiences reflected back to you when you're growing up, because, you know, now I'm reading African-American young adult fiction and thinking why didn't I have access to this, when I was a kid so I could better understand other people that I didn't see on a regular basis, and know that we were going through a lot of the same stuff.
AMANDAAnd also they were facing things that I only, like, read about in history books. And that could help me understand actually what racism feels like for another 12-year-old girl that I, you know -- and I never got to read that. So I'm so grateful that there's more of this fiction and now so thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Care to comment, Elizabeth?
ACEVEDORight. I mean, I think there are all these studies that show that reading fiction makes people more empathetic, but if we don't have the fiction that is being marketed and distributed in such a way that folks have access to stories that are different than their own, then of course it can only go so far. You know, I really wonder when I look at the world, so much of the troubles that its having, I can look at folks and say, you know, they're not reading creatively, (laugh) like they aren't reading about experiences outside of what they know and it shows. It shows in how they speak about people, who are different than they are.
NNAMDIWhen you were on the show 1A a few weeks ago, you talked about your own special brand of sazón. Your characters live in two languages and you do not italicize the Spanish words in your book. Why not?
ACEVEDOI think that, you know, italicizing language assumes who the reader is and what language the reader speaks. And if I'm going to show up and say that I write to and for and towards, you know, (unintelligible) and black kids, I'm not going to assume that they don't know what I bring to the text, right. And so I trust my reader, if they don't know Spanish, if they don't know a certain word in slang, that they are going to Google, they're going to research, they're going to look it up. And that if they do know it they recognize, oh, this book is for me, because look at how it welcomes me in.
NNAMDIYou dedicated this novel to the women in your family quoting here, "Who gathered you when you needed the gathering and gave you a launch pad when you needed to dream." Tell us about them.
ACEVEDOYou know, I'm really lucky. My mom is one of 15. I have eight aunts and I grew up in, you know, this family of strong women. My cousins read all of my work and come back, and I have 60 first cousins so that's saying a lot, (laugh) and so, you know, the women in my family have always kind of just checked me, right, like had this moment of this is how you moved through the world and this is how we trust you.
ACEVEDOAnd when I moved beyond what they imagined, when I went away for school, when I challenged certain traditional notions, you know, there was no being ostracized. It was okay, we're going to sit back and watch and we love you, right. And I think the reason I'm a writer was because of that support that allowed me to dream bigger than my parents imagined when they came here.
NNAMDII'm wondering if you could read one more passage in this one where Emoni is talking about her mother who she never knew, her abuela, the grandmother who raised her and her dreams for her own daughter Emma, who she called Baby Girl.
ACEVEDOYeah, this is one of my favorite passages, because I think making sure that the main character's love for her daughter was clear took a lot of work for me to do. And so "Dreams. I sometimes wonder what my mother might have dreamed for me if she hadn't died when I was born. If she would've wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, if she would've been pushier to ensure I did better in school. I love Abuela and I'm so lucky to have her, but as supportive as she is, Abuela isn't the type to run down to a school and smack a counselor upside the head for discouraging me from applying somewhere.
ACEVEDOAbuela isn't the type to demand the school test me to see why I get so mixed up with directions or struggle to speak early on. Abuela walks through the world with her hands palm up. She takes what's given to her in stride and she never complains or cries. I dream every single day for Baby Girl. I see people in business suits on the bus and I imagine baby girl growing up with a briefcase and a nice executive office job. I watch a TV show and imagine Baby Girl as a famous actress winning an Oscar.
ACEVEDOThere's so much I want for her that sometimes I think the seams of my skin aren't enough to contain every hope I have. And I whisper to her all the time when I'm feeding her, when she's asleep in my arms, when we are playing at the park, I whisper all the everything I know she can be and all the ways I'll fight for her to be them. I want her to know her entire life. Her mommy may not have had a powerful job or made millions, but that her moms did everything so that she could be an accumulation of the best dreams."
NNAMDIElizabeth Acevedo reading from her most recent novel, it's called "With the Fire on High." I don't want to spoil too much, but "With the Fire on High" does end on a hopeful note. Why do you think that's important in young adult literature, particularly when the stories are about young people of color?
ACEVEDOYou know, I think we have enough messages towards young people of color that is discouraging, that says that, you know, they're not going to succeed or that there's the one exception. And if you are not that one exception or an exceptional human than you won't make it beyond, you know, the four corners of your block. And so I wanted to think about -- one of the things I really can't escape, when I'm writing is how do I offer at least a promise of better.
ACEVEDOThat the stories don't always end necessarily with a happy ending, but with the potential for this character now has the tools to figure out how to make their life what they need it to be. That seems powerful for me and I just refuse to give horror or trauma-ridden endings for young people, when I know that so often that might be what they're being told in every other capacity. I don't want them to come to my books for that.
NNAMDIHere's Timothy in Washington, D.C. Timothy, go ahead, please.
TIMOTHYYes, hello Ms. Acevedo, how are you?
ACEVEDOHey, Timothy, I'm well.
TIMOTHYGood. I have a quick question for you. So I'm from the Judy Bloom era of young people writing so, you know, we didn't have people of color back in those books. They weren't there. So I don't have any children. I'm almost 50 years old now, but I try to connect with young people. How do you recommend I read your book with a goal of trying to reach young people that I don't really know or maybe don't even really understand?
ACEVEDOI love Judy Bloom and I think what Judy does is she's unflinchingly honest when she talks about what teens go through, right. And I try to do the same in my work. And so often -- you know, I don't have children either and I'm from a different generation than the high schools that I visit, the middle schools I'm at, but I realize that adults don't always listen. We have a lot of advice to give. We have a lot of life we've lived and so we come into spaces wanting to pour into young people as opposed to realizing that they have all kinds of experiences. And so listening is the main thing. Read to learn and then go into these spaces to listen.
NNAMDIElizabeth Acevedo. She's a National Book Award winner and a Poetry Slam champion. Her most recent novel is called "With the Fire on High." Thank you so much for joining us.
ACEVEDOThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIThis conversation with Elizabeth Acevedo was produced by Julie Depenbrock and our look at Metro's summer shutdown was produced by Monna Kashfi. Coming up tomorrow, just in time for a summer a season full of rooftop happy hours and weekend get-togethers, we explore sober scenes in the region, talk about how to navigate booze-heavy spaces as a nondrinker and learn about some delicious nonalcoholic beverages that have nothing mocking about them. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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