At the annual Global Health Council meeting in Washington DC yesterday, I was reminded of an interesting BCC tool for low-literacy audiences: the speaking book. These books, which are large-format, hardcover picture books with a recorded soundtrack for each page, allow health workers, peer educators, and others to communicate basic messages about health and healthy behaviors to rural and low-literacy audiences. The foremost champion of speaking books is Books of Hope, which works with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) to help NGOs, CBOs, and government agencies develop and produce these books in a number of different languages for topics pertaining to HIV, TB, immunizations, malaria, and avian influenza.
My primary qualm about the books upon first viewing was the illustrations, which seem to vary a good deal in quality. When I spoke to Brian Julius, Chairman of Books of Hope, he was able to offer some insight.
Why use drawings rather than photos? Brian reports that although Books of Hope has used photos for some books (notably those produced with AED for use with audiences in the US), they've found that this can be more difficult and time-consuming than working with illustrators. Some of the challenges he cited were a greater need to revise/reshoot photos due to their specificity (viewers were more likely to feel that they didn't accurately reflect the target audience than with drawings) and consent issues around photos of children. He also pointed out that drawings can be adapted for use with different audiences through changes to clothing and other visual cues, thereby allowing Books of Hope to quickly revise and produce new editions of the books at reduced cost to the donor.
What kind of feedback have they gotten on the work of the different illustrators? According to Brian, Books of Hope has found that what really influences the audience's response to a particular book is not the illustrations, but the recorded narration. Books of Hope uses a variety of local celebrities - musicians, actors, etc - to narrate its books. Audience members "know" these people and their voices and seem to be drawn to them (and the novelty of the books' technology) more than the illustrations themselves.
Books powered by watch batteries can be played more than 50 times, and those powered by slightly more expensive (and replaceable) AAA batteries can be played up to 500 times. Research conducted in South Africa indicated that in one community, each speaking book was viewed by an average of 59 people (www.booksofhope.com).
You can read more about speaking books at www.booksofhope.com.