|It may not top the best seller list nor reach the dizzying popularity of Harry Potter, but author Fran Balkwill is hoping her latest book will have a much more profound impact -- saving lives.
While children in western countries are mesmerized by the boy wizard, Balkwill has written a book for youngsters in sub-Saharan Africa to help them cope with a grim reality in their lives.
Instead of Harry and his friends, its main characters are germs and cells and a deadly virus called HIV.
As far as Balkwill knows it is the first and only book written for children of between 8 and 12 years old about the deadly virus that causes AIDS.
"The aim of the book is to teach children the science behind this virus because if they understand the science it will allow them to make really good decisions about how they run their lives and balance the risk of catching HIV/AIDS," the British author and cancer researcher told Reuters in her London office.
"It is saying this is what the virus does. This is how it kills people. This is how you don't get it in the first place and this is what you do if you have got it."
With punchy, brightly-colored illustrations and a simple narrative the 32-page book hopes the children will exemplify its title "Staying Alive, Fighting HIV/AIDS."
Without costly drugs or a vaccine, prevention is considered the best weapon against the illness that experts agree is the worst epidemic humanity has ever faced.
Thousands of copies were given to children in South Africa, which has the highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS and where an increase in child rape and sex abuse has been blamed on the belief that having sex with a virgin cures the illness.
PULLING NO PUNCHES
Despite the tender years of her audience, Balkwill pulls no punches in explaining how the sexually transmitted virus is spread and the ABCs of preventing it.
A is for abstinence, which means no sex.
B is for being faithful and being tested for HIV.
C is for condoms and for caring.
"You can say no," Balkwill reminds her young readers.
It is a tough, adult subject to convey to children but she finds just the right balance and uses comic book action and art work, some from the children themselves, to explain germs, bacteria and viruses and how they infect cells.
HIV is depicted as a luminous green-faced, red-eyed blob with fangs. A battle between the virus and CD4 immune cells is portrayed as a fist fight complete with "zonk, clonk, bonk," sound effects.
"I think it is crucially important that we target young children. These children become sexually active at any age above 10, and certainly by 12 many are sexually active," said Balkwill.
"If you catch the children young enough you have a chance to modify behavior."
Balkwill, who has written a dozen other science books for young children and runs a cancer research laboratory in London, explains where the virus came from, how it works and debunks myths about being infected by contaminated water and food or touching or hugging infected people.
"You can only catch the virus from the body fluids, especially blood, semen, or vaginal fluids of a person who is already infected with HIV," it says.
INPUT FROM CHILDREN
Before tackling the project, first proposed two years ago by South-African born Professor Saimon Gordon of Oxford University in England, Balkwill and illustrator Mic Rolph traveled to KwaZulu Natal and Gautang provinces in South Africa to get input from teachers, health professionals and children about what to include in it.
Regardless of where they went or whom they spoke to most of the answers to their questions were the same and by the end of the trips they knew what they had to do.
"It was that -- that really wrote the book -- the kids telling us (what to put in it)."
Like Balkwill, Rolph was amazed by the candor, enthusiasm and openness of the children they met and realized the importance of getting their message across.
"We have to tell them when they are young, what is what, and we have a slight, slight chance of getting it right," he said.
Balkwill and Rolph had promised to return to the children in schools, squatter camps and orphanages who had provided so much input and they kept their word.
After it was produced in New York, printed in Hong Kong and shipped to Cape Town, they returned for an official launch and to deliver 20,000 free copies to children who had helped them.
They also established a network of teachers, nuns, soccer clubs and traditional African healers to distribute it more widely.
"We are talking about, in some cases, going into a house where there are no books, where there is no electricity," Balkwill said.
She has applied for additional funding for 100,000 copies. If the book is a success, it may be translated into Zulu, Afrikaans and Xhosa. Editions in other languages could follow.
"We have interest from Brazil, Russia, eastern Europe, Asia and Thailand. We could do all of them, the basis is there," said Balkwill.
But she plans to keep it low-tech and simple and has no grand plans for millions of copies. Instead she will take it stage by stage and assess the book's impact through questionnaires and feedback from her young readers and make improvements to ensure she is getting it right.
Balkwill is also considering a book for younger children and a teacher's pack.
"We would like this book to make a difference but it has got to be part of a coordinated strategy and to fit in with what is already going on."
A highlight of her return trip was stopping in a township and seeing children outside a shop avidly reading the book.
"That was magic," she said.