Winner of the 2017 Arab American Book Award
Twelve-year-old Maria lives a lonely, latchkey-kid's life in the Bronx. Her Lebanese mother is working two nursing jobs to keep them afloat, and Maria keeps her worries to herself, not wanting to be a burden. Then something happens one day between home and school that changes everything. Mom whisks them to an altogether different world on Martha's Vineyard, where she's found a job on a seaside estate. While the mysterious bedridden ownera former film directorkeeps her mother busy, Maria has the freedom to explore a place she thought could only exist in the movies. Making friends with a troublesome local character, Maria finds an old sailboat that could make a marvelous clubhouse. She also stumbles upon an old map that she is sure will lead to pirate's plunderbut golden treasure may not be the most valuable thing she discovers for herself this special summer.
About the Author
Michelle Chalfoun is a pediatric nurse who lives with her husband and children on Long Island, New York. Her first book for young readers, The Treasure of Maria Mamoun, is the winner of the 2017 Arab American Book Award for Children/Young Adults.
Read an Excerpt
The Treasure of Maria Mamoun
By Michelle Chalfoun
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2016 Michelle Chalfoun
All rights reserved.
Maria Theresa Ramirez Mamoun
This is the story of the summer that changed everything for a girl named Maria. It starts with something bad. Nothing magical; something quite ordinary, in fact. Ordinary, but bad enough to give her belly a sickening, swooping feeling whenever she remembered it. And bad enough to make her mother change everything about their lives.
Maria's full name was Maria Theresa Ramirez Mamoun. Mamoun rhymes with baboon, as Maria's classmates frequently pointed out. And though she did not look like a baboon, Maria Theresa Ramirez Mamoun was certainly not a beautiful princess. Nor was she powerfully strong, or extraordinarily brilliant. In fact, according to the old lady at the grocery store, Maria was weak, thin, and sickly, like an overcooked vegetable.
"You look like a canned string bean with glasses," Tante Farida would say. "A girl should have some color in her cheeks. You need to run around outside. You need fresh air and sunshine."
It wasn't Maria's fault she needed fresh air and sunshine. She had lived her entire twelve years in the Bronx, under the elevated train tracks between the Prospect and Intervale Avenue stops, where the tall, gray structure shaded Westchester Avenue most of the day. She left for school before the sun rose and walked in the shadow of gray tracks, past gray apartments until she reached her school. Yes, someone had tried to cheer things up by painting the façade of Bronx RiseUP! Charter School red, but the back side, where the students generally entered and exited, was gray cinder block with steel wire mesh over the windows.
When Maria returned home, the sun had disappeared behind the buildings on the other side of the street. And the noise! By midafternoon, the 2 or 5 train rattled and screeched continually overhead, competing with the rattles and bangs of construction as the last brownstones were torn down to make room for more high -rise housing projects. And with few trees and no yards, it seemed there were not enough plants to freshen the air dirtied by the endless parade of cars, trucks, and buses.
But there was one spot of green — in the empty lot on the other side of Rev. James A. Polite Avenue. Maria sometimes crossed the wide street (even though it was on the wrong side for her walk) just to watch the chickadees flitting among the weeds and white lacy flowers. She looked them up in the school library: Queen Anne's lace. She wondered at the names of the other plants. She monitored the growth of the vine slowly creeping up the wall of the hubcap shop beside the lot. She sometimes imagined the lot-vine taking over the whole street — and the other plants escaping the chain-link fence and covering the rest of the block in a wash of green and lacy white flowers. And butterflies and birds would come, and everyone would just stop and stare and love it and then let flowers and vines cover the whole neighborhood. She silently cheered for the grass that forced its way between cracks in the sidewalk beyond the empty lot.
Other than her daily walks, Maria had little time outside. She spent most of the day in cinder-block classrooms, waiting for the minutes to tick slowly by. After school, she spent the empty evening locked in her apartment watching TV, waiting for her mother to return from work. Maria was not supposed to go anywhere but school and the apartment because nowhere else was safe, and she had no adults to take her anywhere nice. Her mother, Celeste Mamoun, was a nurse. She worked two jobs: one in a hospital in Manhattan and another in a nursing home in Queens, and so between her long hours and long commutes she was gone twelve hours a day, six days a week.
Once, Maria asked Celeste why she had to work two jobs.
"Because there's only one of me," Celeste said. "And you need two paychecks to make it in this town."
On Sundays, Maria and Celeste went shopping. Though there were plenty of stores right there on Prospect Avenue, they took their two shopping carts and walked the two blocks east and three blocks south to Al Janed, which according to its sign was an AMERICA, SPANISH, AND MIDDLE EASTERN GROCERY.
Maria loved everything about that store. She loved the photos of the fried meals that decorated the windows: chicken legs, plantains, enchiladas, falafel, french fries, and so much more than she could ever try. She loved the way a string of brass bells chimed when they opened the door. She loved the weird curly writing on the canned foods. But most of all she loved the smells — smoky red paprika, piles of fragrant persimmons, braids of papery garlic, vats of stinky cheeses swimming in milky water, tubs of olives, and packages of cardamom and allspice.
The old lady who owned the store, Tante Farida, would always come from behind the counter and clasp her mother's hands, murmur "Kifak, chérie," and kiss Celeste's cheeks — first the right, then the left, then the right again. Then Tante would slip Maria a maamoul cookie or a piece of baklawa.
"To fatten the string bean," she would say, pinching Maria's cheek.
"Merci," Maria replied. Her mother taught her to thank Tante in French, because that is how nice Lebanese girls do it "back home." Though Lebanon had never been Maria's home and Maria didn't speak French.
Her mother would then speak to Tante in a mix of French and Arabic. To Maria, Arabic was a mysterious language of whispers and sighs. Her mother never spoke Arabic to anyone but Tante — in their neighborhood most people spoke Spanish, English, or Creole — and so Maria had never learned more than a few words.
As they left, Tante Farida would fill Maria's pockets with sesame crunches and pistachio nougats, refusing Celeste's money. "You're family," Tante would say.
"Are we really related to her?" Maria had once asked. She didn't see a resemblance between her beautiful mother and the old woman.
"No. We call her aunt out of respect," Celeste said.
"Then why does she give us all the free stuff?"
"She's just lonely." Celeste sighed. "It happens to old people."
"Oh," Maria said.
Celeste stopped walking. She cupped Maria's crestfallen face. "I'm sorry, chérie. Sometimes I don't say things right when I'm tired. I meant she likes us like family, so she treats us like family. Even though she's not in our family. Do you understand?"
"I guess," Maria said. There were so many things she wanted to ask her mother, but didn't, because Celeste was always so tired. Like why didn't they have a bigger family? And what happens to lonely old people?
They carted home the value-packs of chicken thighs and the big bags of basmati rice, lemons, lentils (red for keftah, brown for mujadarah), and chickpeas. Then they spent the afternoon cooking the meals Maria would heat up for herself in the microwave all week long. This was their routine, and it was rarely broken.
Once, the summer Maria had turned ten, Celeste had taken her on the 2 train to Penn Station, then on a train to Long Island, and then on a bus to Jones Beach. They spread an old blanket on the sand and ate a picnic lunch. Maria made friends with a girl sitting on the beach blanket next to theirs. They spent the afternoon building castles from the warm gritty sand and dodging in and out of the chilly waves.
It was the best day Maria could remember. Whenever she felt bored or anxious she closed her eyes and remembered that day at the beach.
She told herself she didn't mind being alone. She was quiet and shy, and she wasn't sure she would want to hang out with the other kids in the neighborhood even if they invited her. They seemed too loud and rough. She'd just as soon avoid them, even if that meant she had no friends. Still, Maria didn't complain. She understood, really she did. And Maria knew she was luckier than most. She had a clean apartment, a room of her own, and a mother who loved her fiercely. Celeste did whatever she could to keep Maria safe and happy, and Maria did whatever she could to be grateful.
Even though, sometimes, she wished things were different.
And then one day they were.CHAPTER 2
Many of the rough kids from school lived in Maria's building. There was a pack of particularly loud, laughing girls who hung out together and who were also in sixth grade. Something Maria had done way back when she was younger, something she didn't remember or understand, had put her outside of this group. Growing up, she was not invited to their parties, and now they never knocked on her door to invite her to hang out.
Though they weren't actual members of a gang, Maria called them the Bad Barbies in her mind, because they were glamorous and mean like the girl gang that had terrorized the Bronx a few years back. In the building, she often heard their mothers cursing them out and calling them in. At school, they cowed teachers and students alike. Though everyone had to wear a uniform at school, the Bad Barbies managed to make theirs look unique. Shy Girl poofed her bangs and drew black eyeliner across her top lids, Skinny rolled her plaid skirt so it showed her thick upper thighs, and Sharpie glued sparkling jewels to her stiletto-shaped nails. Maria wasn't sure if it was the daggerlike manicure or the black felt-tip wielded to tag nearly every surface in school that had earned her that name, but Sharpie was definitely the leader.
They mostly ignored Maria when they ran into her with Celeste in the hallway or on the stairs, but when Maria was alone outside their apartment building she was fair game. And at school the Barbies found tormenting Maria to be a source of endless fun.
The Barbies were in most of Maria's classes. Science, Social Studies, and Specials — Art, Phys Ed, and General Music. In Art, Maria found her painting wet side down on the floor, though she knew she'd hung it up to dry on the clothespin line. Her abstract sculpture, stored safe on a high shelf, was smashed before it was graded. In Phys Ed, she was tripped, hit with balls, and clipped with lacrosse sticks so often she spent more time getting ice from the school nurse than playing, and the Phys Ed teacher marked her down for slacking. In the locker room after PE, Maria often found the clothes she'd left in her dry locker in a damp clump in the shower. In Music, there was not much the Barbies could do to her, and they generally chose to braid each other's hair or apply lip gloss instead of singing. Sometimes they looked up and giggled in Maria's direction, and she got the feeling they were laughing about her.
But the worst came when their Science teacher announced they'd be doing photographic family trees to study genetics. It was a horrible assignment even if you had a "normal" family; but it truly sucked when you didn't even have a picture of your dad. Maria had no family to speak of at all — at least none she'd ever known. All that was left of her family was in her name.
Maria Theresa Ramirez Mamoun. "Maria" for the Virgin and her maternal grandmother, whom she'd never met. And never will meet, Celeste would always say, but she wouldn't say why. "Theresa" for the Blessed Saint, though Maria hadn't set foot in a church since her christening at Our Lady of Lebanon down in fancy-pants Brooklyn Heights. "Mamoun" because that was her mother Celeste's last name. And the "Ramirez" wedged in between like a second middle name, because that was the name of her father, whom she'd also never meet, according to her mother.
Her father had gone back to Puerto Rico before she was born, and Maria didn't think about him much. Many of her classmates had no fathers, and some had no mothers either. Quite a few children were being raised by aunties and grandmas. Some lived in foster care. Even most of the Barbies didn't live with their dads. In fact, she'd have been hard-pressed to name a kid in her class who had access to both parents and two sets of grandparents.
Nevertheless, the Barbies found a way to tease Maria at the lockers after class.
"This should be a easy A for you. All you got to do is go down to the animal shelter and get some pictures of the mutts there," Sharpie said.
Shy Girl slammed Maria's locker shut and leaned on it so their noses were inches apart. She sniffed at Maria as if she were smelling something bad. "Yeah, but how she gonna know which dog is her daddy?"
"Who's your daddy! Who's your daddy!" Skinny chanted.
"She don't know."
"That's 'cause her daddy took one look at her ugly face and ran all the way back to PR with his tail between his legs."
Maria did as she always did; she put her head down, ignored their comments, and waited to gather her books after they'd gone laughing down the hall.
It was because of the Bad Barbies that Maria made sure to leave for school early in the morning and come home carefully in the afternoon. In the morning, she left the apartment building before the Barbies pulled themselves together and exited in their squawking flock. And after school, she walked behind the Barbies so she could keep them in her sights. She wanted to be sure all the Barbies were inside their apartments before she entered the building. If she saw them hanging out on the steps, Maria detoured to Prospect Avenue and hung out in Linda 99¢ Plus, where she'd spend a long time browsing the soap selection or feigning interest in socks. If they still hadn't left and the man behind the counter was giving her dirty looks, she circled back to La Vida Librería and pretended she could read the Literatura Cristiana. She understood enough Spanish to know it was Abierto de Lunes a Sabado (open Monday to Saturday) hasta 4:30 p.m. So she was covered for two hours at least.
This was, of course, against her mother's rule about going anywhere except school and home, but Maria could see no other way of avoiding the Barbies and she didn't want to bother her mother with something like this. Celeste Mamoun was already overworked and overtired. She would leave even earlier than Maria in the morning and she would return home even later, sometimes even after Maria had put herself to bed. Maria figured the last thing Celeste needed was more stress trying to find affordable after-school care for her daughter who, at twelve years old and nearly done with sixth grade, should be old enough to take care of herself.
The uneasiness Maria felt was well-founded, if possibly misplaced. Though kids did get hurt at school and in the neighborhood, she didn't know for sure that it was the Barbies who did the damage. Still, girls got hurt. Especially lonely girls.
Once, in fifth grade, a teacher Maria didn't even know pulled her off the yard during recess to escort one such injured girl. The victim was tiny; recently from El Salvador and still friendless, and either she was too upset or didn't speak English, but she didn't say a word to Maria as they walked the long halls to the school nurse. The girl held a wad of bloody paper towels to her face, and when the nurse gently pulled them away with her gloved hands, Maria saw the scratches that started up in the girl's hairline, ran through her eyebrow, and tracked down her cheek to her jaw.
But on most days Maria got to school and back home just fine. On most days the steps were clear and she could go right to her apartment and eat a snack and do her homework and watch TV in peace. If there ever were an emergency, she could call 911. So Maria was just fine, really.
Until she wasn't.CHAPTER 3
The Republic of Ugly
It rained the day their family trees were due. And it was one of those terrible spring rains, where the wind drives the raindrops so hard they feel like hailstones. Maria rolled up the poster board and tied it with a shoelace. Then she slipped it into two kitchen garbage bags and taped them securely with white bandage tape from her mother's home first aid kit.
She had done a good job on the project, despite the challenges of having no photos to work with. She'd drawn an actual tree with wide spreading branches and applied green paper leaves for the different ancestors. Since she didn't have photos, she drew flags to represent relatives from different countries: a cedar tree for the Lebanese contingent, and the red, white, and blue of Puerto Rico for her father. People born in the U.S. got an American flag. Celeste had provided names and dates as best she could. If she forgot this or that one's name or birthdate, Celeste flicked her wrist and said, "Maalish, it doesn't matter: Mr. Kapusta has no way to check anyhow. What? He is going to call Beirut?"
Under each family member Maria detailed whatever genetic traits her mother recalled: blue eyes and peaked hairline, diabetes and heart disease. It had taken her the better part of a week to complete, and she was pretty sure she would get an A. Probably half the class did theirs on notebook paper over breakfast. Mr. Kapusta was a tiny, rabbity man, whose old-fashioned vests made him look even more like the Easter Bunny. Maria imagined him grateful and relieved that at least one student had completed the project correctly.
Excerpted from The Treasure of Maria Mamoun by Michelle Chalfoun. Copyright © 2016 Michelle Chalfoun. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Maria Theresa Ramirez Mamoun,
2. Bad Barbies,
3. The Republic of Ugly,
4. Fishy Butter and Funny Accents,
5. Into the Woods,
6. Captain Murderer,
7. The Great House,
8. Twice Twice Two,
9. Something to Do,
10. Mr. Ironwall,
11. Bicycles and Sails,
12. Over the Rail,
13. Mr. Ironwall, Revisited,
14. Stranger Danger,
15. The Triangle Island,
16. That Sort of Girl,
17. A Boy Raised by Wolves,
18. Captain Murdefer, Revisited,
20. The Dread Pyrate Paolo,
21. High and Dry,
22. Help from Major Dirt,
23. Onward ... Onward!,
24. An Old-Fashioned Fourth,
25. Tuning the Rig,
27. Square One,
28. Fire Escape,
29. The Same or Worse,
30. Engaging the Enemy,
31. Batten Down the Hatches,
32. The Queen's Door,
33. Treasure Island,
34. What Kind of Trouble,
35. The Last Privateer,
About the Author,