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Chanda’s Secrets

by Allan Stratton

Sixteen-year-old Chanda’s African world slowly begins to unravel with the death of her baby stepsister. Her mother retreats into silence, then lingering illness, and her stepfather disappears into drunken oblivion. Chanda, who’s preparing for her exams to become a teacher, becomes acting head of the family, making funeral arrangements and taking care of her younger siblings. A nosy neighbour thinks witchcraft is at work, while rumours of AIDS are whispered, but Chanda can’t discover the truth because no one will talk about what’s happening. Slowly she begins to understand that the silence itself is harming her family and community just as insidiously as the disease, and that she must speak out against the stigma and shame that accompany AIDS.

Allan Stratton paints a devastatingly poignant portrait of a sub-Saharan teen’s world torn apart by AIDS. His focus on Chanda allows readers to see how AIDS directly affects the lives of people rather than getting caught up in the politics of how one part of Africa is dealing with AIDS. That balancing act of keeping the subject from overpowering Chanda, while at the same time making sure that AIDS doesn’t seem trivialized, makes this a particularly wrenching reading experience. Chanda has so much to deal with that, at times, it seems almost impossible that a contemporary teen is forced to bear such adult responsibilities, but that’s what is so powerful about this book.

Stratton’s skills as a writer make Chanda feel familiar to us even if her world isn’t. Like Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner trilogy, set in Afghanistan, Stratton has eloquently given a voice to the voiceless in this first YA novel about AIDS in Africa.