Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando
Publication Date: 5/12/2011
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: Coney Island, NYC history, loss of a parent, starting a new school
Format read: Hardcover from library
Summary: After years and years of moving around, Jane, her brother, and her dad have settled in to Coney Island, New York, where her grandparents have left her and her sibling their home — a treasure trove of Coney history and perhaps the key to uncovering some new details about her mom, who died when she was 6. As Jane struggles to fit into Coney and her high school full of “freaks” (and the uber handsome tattoo-covered Leo), the island itself is going through a sea of (unwanted) changes.
During my junior year in college, I took a New York City history class. I don’t remember covering Coney Island, but I did do my end-of-semester report on young adult novels set in NYC, focusing on how the city was depicted through the eyes of a child. (Needless to say, I had no idea that 7 years later, I would be reading and reviewing these same kind of books regularly.)
I wish that Dreamland Social Club could have been part of that assignment.
Jane is new to the challenges Coney’s community faces as big business is trying to buy up all the retail space from locals (who have been there forever) and strip the place of its history. While she sees the effects of this firsthand, she is also on her own scavenger hunt to find out more about her mother. Altebrando does the work of a magician as she weaves in these (fascinating) social issues with an extremely personal story.
It’s really amazing how memory works — how it could just be buried at the back of your head and reappear at the strangest of times. I loved how Altebrando played with this and how we were able to learn more about Jane’s (short) relationship with her mother and how her mother made Coney very much a part of her childhood without her realizing it until much later. This was such a lovely and unique device for young adult fiction and I was enthralled and touched when these moments popped up. Structure in a book is always very important to me and you can tell that Altebrando worked diligently to connect these memories to Jane’s present life without making them seem too coincidental or too perfect. Everything meshed together to form this glorious picture of Jane’s life as her family history and her future beautifully collided.
And the supporting characters: beautiful, complicated tattoo infested Leo – a leading man who makes my mouth water. While romance does play a part in this book, it is a careful sidebar and never overpowers the plot. I liked that so much. In too many novels, the love story becomes the main focus and we lose the lush details of the background and maybe even the depth of the main character. It does not happen here. The chemistry between Jane and Leo is out-of-this-world wonderful. Altebrando also introduces a team of characters who are quite different… most fabulous was Babette, a goth dwarf, who is confident and sassy. There was also a legless boy who can work a skateboard, and a 7-foot boy named Legs. Jane is just average. She’s not uber talented at one thing, and she doesn’t have much style. But when confronted with her peers who have their own challenges to face but remain true to themselves, Jane begins to dig a little deeper to figure out just who she is and how she fits into this school, this town, and the world. (This growth was paced so naturally.)
Once I started reading Dreamland Social Club, I did not want to put it down for one minute or ever finish it. The characters and their stories were so intriguing and I loved going on this adventure with Jane. I yearned for her to have stability and to have a real handle on who her mother was. I wanted her to connect. While the novel dealt with serious issues, there was still a mystical and magical quality to it. I’ve read many novels this year (almost 60) and I read over 100 last year, but I have yet to find one that made me feel quite so passionate for style of writing, character development, and setting as this one. If I could buy everyone who reads this a copy, I certainly would.
Lastly, I need to take my first visit to Coney Island… yesterday.
The closest I’ve come to Coney Island… our Disney Cruise ship passed it on the way out of NYC last weekend. I was so thrilled:
See that tall red spaceshipy thing? It’s the Parachute Jump!