Cover New York University (NYU) adjunct associate professor Dr. Maha Hosain Aziz (Image: Future World Order)

The professor and risk expert worked with an all-female team to dream up The Global Kid, a political comic book for children with VR/AR features

Dr Maha Hosain Aziz knows a thing or two about taking risks. After all, the New York University (NYU) MA IR (Master of Arts in International Relations) professor, with several degrees under her belt, is a risk expert; she sits on the Global Future Council on Frontier Risks at the World Economic Forum, and also often serves as the keynote speaker on global risk and future trends at conferences worldwide, including the United Nations and the European Parliament. 

“After my PhD at the London School of Economics, I moved to New York City and just fell into a portfolio career,” says Aziz. “I work on different projects that focus on global risk, from teaching my grad students to writing books and creating comics, to giving speeches to diverse audiences and sometimes consulting.”

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While all of Aziz’s projects are “focused on helping others make sense of a world with growing global risk so they can make better decisions”, her latest project has a specific focus: helping children to navigate the complicated world of global politics and worldwide crises, through the format of a comic book.

Aziz, who travelled extensively from a young age due to her father’s job as an international banker, grew up as a “global citizen with strong Pakistani Muslim roots” and was spurred by her dream of becoming a cartoonist. Inspired by her nomadic upbringing, childhood passion for comic drawing and her work as an educator, the book educates children on global political issues and encourages them to take action early. 

The Global Kid is the world’s first virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR) political comic book,” explains Aziz. “It teaches kids about the global risks and challenges we face in our geopolitics, politics, economies and societies.” Written for children with ages between eight to 12 and above, the comic stars a superhero character that aims to ignite the reader’s activist spirit by taking them through a superhero training journey via virtual reality. Once the reader scans the pages with their smartphone, the AR/VR components embedded within will come to life with an animation on screen.

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It could be said that the book is a rather risky move for Aziz. Messages in politically-oriented books often run the risk of going over childrens’ heads with their complexity; The Global Kid itself features convoluted topics ranging from the Arab Spring movement to the Cold War, to terms like populism and universal basic income (UBI).   

Aziz disagrees. “I feel that children must learn about global politics. Let’s face it, due to social media, they are now even more aware of global challenges like climate change and a pandemic—given what we have lived through—as compared to previous generations,” notes Aziz. “The comic allows kids to learn about these challenges in a more structured way—to understand basic global trends and also to think about what they can do to help.”

She adds: “Creativity is a great way to get kids’ attention and teach them. And well, in terms of edutainment, there aren’t any characters who really focus on global politics. There is a gap that The Global Kid fills by enlightening tween readers about international affairs.”

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The Global Kid was released in December 2021, as a sequel to Aziz’s award-winning 2016 comic book of the same name. While “both comics at their core are about enlightening kids about global problems and also showing how they can be an activist in tackling them”, the 2021 comic boasts several differences, including incorporating embedded edtech (education technology) components. The VR/AR facets offer an immersive adventure with animation and sound, enhancing both the reading experience and the educational aspects. 

“My first comic was hand-drawn by me and then digitally coloured by graphic designer Bloria Tahari. It was educational and unique, but I knew if I carried it further the book had to keep with current trends,” recalls Aziz. “Edtech is the way forward—it’s a great way to engage with kids today.”

The author worked with “a global, all-female dream team” to bring the book to life. “I sketched out every single page of the comic, and thereafter artist extraordinaire Mara Angelilli drew amazing illustrations that really made the content so much more appealing,” Aziz explains.

For the VR work, she tapped into the creative forces of award-winning London-based VR education gaming platform Musemio, while the AR capabilities were developed with Rome-based start-up AR Market. As the book was a passion project borne during the pandemic, Aziz could only work with the female powerhouses virtually. “These were all very talented and kind women,” she enthuses. “It was a wonderful experience to work with them to produce the book—all on Zoom!” 

Instead of a male superhero, the new book also “features a female superhero as we need more female heroes in the world today”. Tanya, the female superhero nicknamed ‘The Global Kid’, is accompanied by a canine sidekick inspired by Aziz’s actual rescue dog Lucky. 

Aziz was also motivated by the little girls in her large family, who served as sources of inspiration. “My sweet cousin’s 10 year old daughter voiced Tanya in the VR animation; her sister and my brother’s daughter in London also gave us critical first user feedback,” says the author. “Tanya is actually named after my sister's daughter, my eldest niece, while the character’s brother is modelled after her sweet brother, my nephew. All the kids in our family are all very talented in their own rights with their own interests, Gen Z should be taken seriously!”

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Aziz’s hard work has also paid off—besides climbing to the top five bestsellers in Amazon’s sites in Singapore and Australia in its first five weeks, The Global Kid has also clinched an accolade in the US-based 2021 Moonbeam Children's Book Award. The award-winning title was also a finalist in the 2021 Germany-based Digital Female Leader Awards, and is featured in the London Design Biennale's Design in the Age of Crisis Gallery.

Much like the character she penned, Aziz also seeks to make the world a better place. Profits from her first comic book went to the Abid Aziz Fund, her brother’s memorial fund for Syrian refugee youth that was created in his name after a valiant fight against cancer, while the first week of profits from the new book was donated to the Covid Solidarity Response Fund for the WHO during the Omicron surge. 

In response to the recent Russia-Ukraine military conflict, Aziz donated a week’s profits to Unicef’s Ukraine Appeal for children caught in the crossfire amid the Russian invasion. She is also using the book in hopes to drive awareness in tackling global challenges, which includes supporting nonprofit Global Citizen’s #StandUpForUkraine campaign

What’s next for The Global Kid? It seems like the book has ticked all the boxes, but Aziz feels differently. Having conquered the edtech aspect, Aziz is also looking into developing educational non-fungible tokens (NFTs), specifically one that could possibly “educate people on a specific political idea from the comic”.

“The challenge is to make sure more kids read it, and so we’ll keep promoting it to tweens around the world via schools and education foundations,” she explains. “I also want to share it with less privileged kids via education foundations globally, and have started conversations around this. I hope to connect with these kids virtually or in person about the book, whether it’s discussing the tech, the artwork, or the political content. There’s lots to talk about!” 

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