The young men sat at their desks in a S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice classroom, staring hard at the book each had just been handed.
The book, a 30-page graphic novel — a story told in pictures and words — was their creation. Its mission is to educate other teens about HIV and AIDS, and prevent the spread of the disease.
“AIDS in the End Zone” tells the fictional story of a high school football player who will do anything to get back his starting quarterback position — including trying to get his rival infected with HIV. Helping the students create the story were two University of South Carolina library and information science research professors and an illustrator. They worked with the teens to craft the story line, develop characters and tweak the dialogue.
Six months later, the students were having a hard time believing the book was real.
“You’re authors,” USC assistant professor Karen Gavigan told the 15- to 19-year-old incarcerated students, as slight, proud smiles spread across several of their faces.
The book, which includes facts about HIV and AIDS woven into the graphic novel format, is more than the work of a summer school project. It’s a tool the USC researchers hope will go a long way toward improving understanding and stopping the spread of HIV among South Carolina’s youth population. The state ranks eighth in the nation for new HIV cases, while Columbia ranks sixth nationally among metropolitan areas. Young black men make up the highest at-risk group in the state.
“We wanted the book to be written by the target audience. It was important that it be written in the local vernacular. What can two middle-aged white women tell African-American teenagers?” said Kendra Albright, an associate professor in USC’s School of Library and Information Science. “This book is written by and for South Carolina teenagers.”
Gavigan and Albright, working with illustrator Sarah Petrulis, received a USC University-Community Initiative Research Award that allowed them to spend eight weeks meeting with the teens at DJJ to develop “AIDS in the End Zone.” In January, the researchers received a research grant from the national Association for Library and Information Science Education, which will allow them to expand the project with young adults at public libraries.
The next step is working with the Richland County Public Library system to determine whether the book is successful in increasing teens’ understanding of HIV. The book includes information about HIV prevention, testing and treatment. Gavigan and Albright plan to survey teens before and after reading the book to see if their knowledge and understanding of the disease changes. The two eventually want to test the book on students in at-risk schools, with the ultimate goal to take it nationally and internationally, with each book written in the culture and language of its audience.
“Youth are more inclined to read and retain information if it is in an engaging format — such as that of graphic novels — popular with their generation,” Gavigan said.
For the two researchers from USC’s School of Library and Information Science in the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies, the work has been some of the most rewarding of their careers.
Gavigan has conducted research on how graphic novels can be used to improve literacy, particularly among adolescent males. Albright has studied the information education and communication strategy used in AIDS prevention in Africa, with much of her work focusing on AIDS in Uganda.
The two weren’t sure what to expect when they started working with students at the DJJ school district in Columbia, where approximately 900 fourth- through 12th-graders attend class. All juveniles in the care of the DJJ attend school while they are detained or incarcerated.
“The experience with the guys was really the best part,” Albright said. “It was just a wonderful experience. These students were hungry to use their creativity. And the teachers there were just amazing.”
Gavigan agreed: “Meeting with these groups in the juvenile justice system was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever done.”