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The quirky characters and Coney Island setting of Tara Altebrando’s new novel were so engaging that I read it on the subway to and from Coney, and then in a car on the road, in an effort to keep the story from ending.

Who wouldn’t want to belong to the Dreamland Social Club? In this novel for teenage readers, the club is an unofficial group frequented by a freaky clique at Coney Island High School. Among its members is Babette, a goth dwarf who befriends the novel’s 16-year-old heroine Jane with the explanation: “You seem cool. And you’ve got carny blood, even if it’s highly diluted.”

Jane is cool, though it takes most of the book for her to develop a sense of belonging and join the club. She and her brother Marcus have lived a nomadic life with their dad, who has designed roller coasters from Tokyo to Paris. The carny blood that Babette refers to comes from their mom’s side of the family, who were genuine Coney Island characters. But Jane and Marcus have never met their late grandparents and can hardly remember their mother, who died when they were little kids.

As a carny kid and Coney Island devotee, I felt drawn to the story of Jane’s life in Coney, where her family moves after inheriting her grandfather’s house. There’s lots of fun stuff in the attic. Jane soon learns that her grandfather “Preemie” Porcelli got his start in Coney as one of the premature babies on exhibit in Dreamland’s Baby Incubator Show. Her new friends remember him as the operator of a water race game on the Boardwalk calling them in to win prizes.

There’s also Jane’s tantalizing flirtation with Leo aka Tattoo Boy, whose father owns a Boardwalk dive bar that’s being evicted by a real estate developer who has bought up Coney Island. Does the last part sound familiar? The author has done a remarkable job of weaving Coney history and current events—both real and imagined– into a marvelous coming-of-age story.

Among the novel’s memorable details are a carousel horse from the fictional equivalent of Coney’s “B & B Carousell” chained to a radiator, vintage films of Jane’s grandmother who was a “Birdwoman” in the sideshow, and keys hidden away by her mother that still unlock long-vanished attractions. Jane’s family home gives up all of its secrets and Coney Island becomes her real home.

Tara Altebrando will appear at “Great Summer Reads for Teens” with a few other teen authors on Thursday, June 16, from 6-8 pm at Books of Wonder, 18 West 18th Street, New York, NY 10011. Ph 212- 989-3270.

Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando. Ages 14 and up. 389 pages. Published by Dutton Books, 2011. Hardcover, $16.99.

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