UNESCO IITE released a series of comic books about puberty, health, and relationships

The Bookmate electronic library has presented three comic books about growing up, feelings, and relationships, created by the UNESCO IITE educational project DVOR and the association of artists and screenwriters “Komikaze.” Initially, the stories were published in the online community and seen by hundreds of thousands of young people. Some of them expressed empathy, some could relate to the main characters. But, most importantly, readers shared valuable feedback – such comic books enable taking the conversation about sexual & reproductive health out of the taboo area and help teenagers to cope with the difficulties of puberty.

It is too important to be afraid to talk about

The editors of DVOR have long planned to release visual stories that would open a way to cover the most sensitive topics related to sexuality education: unplanned pregnancy, contraception, myths about masturbation, living with HIV, sexual consent, physical and mental health, in a brief and captivating format. In 2019, DVOR created three original comic books, which readers warmly welcomed. 

Wow, this is so unusual but cool! Comics are a great way to talk about such a topic)

Couldn’t stop rooting for Vlad [a comic book character], I’ve never been so worried about someone else’s relationship!

Very cool topic! Awesome graphics and meaning!

Upon finding a way to talk about love, relationships, sexuality, and reproductive health, UNESCO IITE, together with the editors of DVOR, decided to present the stories outside the community and released them in the Bookmate electronic library in the form of three books:

“Body and Mind” are ten short stories where the key character, the restless brain, tries to comprehend the whole versatility of life and communication with other people. Sometimes he succeeds, and sometimes not so much. Like all of us.

“The Bugs of Growing Up. Vlad” – five stories about a teenage boy Vlad. According to the plot, he finds a robot called Tolya in the bushes near his house. Tolya was sent to Earth from space to study people. The robot asks Vlad for help in exploring the life of earthlings. We follow the main themes of people’s relationships, love, and new experiences through their adventures.

“The Bugs of Growing Up. Lika”– five stories about a teenage girl Lika. She faces problems that are familiar to most teens: the imperfection of her body, the violation of personal boundaries, the despair of a friend with an HIV+ diagnosis, the taboo on expressing her sexuality. It is not easy for her to cope with those difficulties. However, she still gives vent to her feelings and does everything in her power to find ways out of challenging situations.

 

Bookmate readers also appreciated the usefulness and importance of this initiative.

The plots are mega-life, but at the same time, they are presented in a very non-trivial way! In general, great!

I want to say a huge thank you for covering such important topics that every teenager faces. Although there is no sex education in most CIS countries as such, thank you for not being afraid to talk about it and making it the norm (it should be, but for some reason, society does not want to admit it). Nowadays, young people prefer to learn about many things from the Internet, rather than from their parents or school.

Finding the right language

Artists and writers who have worked on the comic books note that the biggest challenge was finding the right tone of the conversation and expressive ways to convey the information correctly and delicately.

There are many requirements for a sex education comic book. First, it should have a practical use: tell the reader something important, give scientifically based knowledge. Second, it is a work of art, the plot must be exciting, and the characters must be lively and charismatic. Finally, it should not become a simplistic and didactic listing of “do’s” and “don’ts.” It is a challenge to solve all these problems simultaneously, – explains one of the authors Alfiya Maksutova.

For example, in the story about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), it was important to tell the reader about the infections, explain which of them are curable and which are not, and most importantly, how to protect oneself from the risk. But imagine a young person’s reaction to such a health education bulletin? You, say, just turned 18, you are in love, and for the first time, you will spend the night with your loved one. And in this amazing, intimate life event, someone intervenes, waving a leaflet with the inscription “gonorrhea”?

We built the plot around the experiences of a teenager [Vlad] in such a situation. The friend of the protagonist is a robot. He is capable of affection but does not understand human emotions at all. He is sincerely worried, and he follows Vlad everywhere, trying to slip him a leaflet with facts about STIs. Vlad perceives this care as an invasion of personal space and gets angry: this is how teens feel about moralizing messages from adults, which are often given without understanding the emotional context. And we, the authors of the story, say: “We understand you, reader, it happens. This is useful information, but we know how you feel when it is thrown at you like that. 

Lera Zhelezova, the artist who visualized the stories about high school student Lika, also noted that this task became a challenge for her in many respects:

Working on comic books about sexuality aimed at teenagers was a quest. It’s unclear how to draw things to make them appealing specifically to teenagers. I’m already older; what if I no longer understand what is fun and what is not? A comic strip for social media should not be too complicated. This is fast content, and it needs to be simple. The readers should be able to grasp the meaning and not bother with the details of the drawing. The author should try to be funny where possible because teenagers (and all of us) do not like to be bored. At the same time, it’s scary to offend someone: most of us are super-emotional at the age of 14. I just tried to remember myself during high school time and figure out what would work best.

Another writer, Lina Aleksiunaite, highlighted the importance and potential use of the books not only for young people but for people of all ages:

One of the series was devoted to the topic of relationships and sex in the lives of people with disabilities. Not only for teenagers but also many adults, this topic is still incomprehensible and puzzling. In our society, people with disabilities are most often considered asexual, and there is no common assumption that they also can love and have sex like all of us. Therefore, it was important to reveal this fact to teenagers as well as adults who come across this comic book.

Comic books are a popular educational format. It draws on a strong tradition of graphic storytelling popularizing scientific knowledge that began in the mid-20th century with The world around us comic strips. Further, this tradition was supported by individual scientists, universities, and major publishing houses. Today, the world of educational comics is vast and diverse, both in visual style and approach to storytelling. On the shelves of bookstores, you can find pop-science manga, on the websites of scientific laboratories – comics about the life of research teams in the spirit of Ph.D. comics. On the Internet, you can see educational comic strips about physiology like The Awkward Yeti, or sex education strips from The Vulva Gallery on Instagram. According to the research, the demand for comics in Russia is growing rapidly.

This is what motivates us to continue talking to our audience in the language of comic books. And it inspires new important plots and stories,”  – says Alena Lesnyak, editor of the DVOR community and writer.

You can learn more about how these stories were created in Chips Journal and TJ publications.