Learn Computer Science Concepts With This New Graphic Novel

Comic Books GeekMom

There’s a brand new graphic novel on the market this week, and it merges fiction, programming, puzzles, and a big mystery! Secret Coders follows the story of Hopper, a girl who is starting at a new school. She bonds with an unlikely friend as they try to figure out   all the weird things happening around their creepy-looking school. Something’s up, and they know it.

Of course, we know how they are going to solve the puzzles: with programming! I always get a little worried when a book mixes fiction and education. Just how much will the story plot suffer? The programmer in me was willing to give this book a chance, and it did not disappoint. While there are a couple of places where the educational part becomes a little more obvious, namely when Hopper learns how to read binary and when she learns how to read a program, it really doesn’t drag. The book is fast-paced, full of humor, and just really fun to read. Fair warning though, it ends on quite a cliffhanger. Be ready to long for book #2!

Secret Coders came out of September 29th, and is aimed for the 9- to 12-year-olds, but it would be just as fine as a read-aloud for younger kids. It was written by Gene Luen Yang, who you may know as the writer and/or illustrators for many comics such as Avatar: The Last Airbender, and illustrated by Mike Homes, who has worked on Adventure Time.

I had the chance to chat with Gene about his experience as a programmer, high school programming teacher, writer, and illustrator.

GeekMom: Why did you choose Logo as a programming language for the book and the exercises available on secret-coders.com? (Other than it being historically related to turtle graphics, and therefore your turtle robot character!)

Gene Luen Yang: I love Logo! Logo was the first programming language I ever learned, in a coding class during the summer after fifth grade. It’s what got me hooked on programming, what led to me eventually majoring in Computer Science.

I love the way Logo connects coding with art. (For folks who aren’t familiar, the language’s most endearing feature is a little turtle that can be made to move around the screen and draw.) Before writing Secret Coders, I did some research. Logo was created in the 1960s by Seymour Papert, Wally Feurzeig, and Cynthia Solomon. They designed it specifically for educational purposes. There was no turtle in Logo’s first iteration and when they field tested it with students, things didn’t go so well.

Papert was then inspired to add the turtle after seeing the robot turtles of Grey Walter, an English neurophysiologist. The turtle is what made Logo a hit. If you learned to code as an elementary school student in the 70s and 80s, you most likely learned Logo. It isn’t used much in the States anymore, but it’s still used with kids in India. And here in the States, a language called Scratch–Logo’s most immediate successor–is gaining traction.

I know Logo is considered ancient and out-of-date these days, but that’s part of its appeal, at least narratively speaking. I want to draw a parallel between magic and coding. With both magic and coding, words become action. A wizard says a few words, and something crazy happens. The coder does the same thing, essentially. Since most magic words sound like they’re part of an ancient, forgotten language, I thought Logo was appropriate for my story.

Also, cute robot turtles.

GM: Was your experience writing an educational graphic novel about Computer Science different from the previous graphic novels you’ve worked on?

GLY: This is my first explicitly educational graphic novel, where I’m actively trying to teach the reader about an academic subject. It’s been challenging because I’m trying to combine narrative and educational elements.

When I was prepping for the project, I looked at a lot of educational stories for children, mostly animated cartoons and other comics. More often than not, the story takes a back seat to the instruction. The protagonists don’t really have personalities. They’re merely meant to be avatars for the audience.

While I definitely think there’s a place for that approach, for Secret Coders I wanted a real story to go along with the educational parts. I wanted characters who weren’t blank slates, who didn’t always smile. And I wanted the educational parts to be integral to the narrative. Hopper, my narrator, is trying to teach coding to an as-yet-unrevealed character by telling them the story of how she learned to code. She’s doing this for a very specific reason.

Secret Coders. Image credit: Macmillan Publishers.
Secret Coders. Image credit: Macmillan Publishers.

GM: I hear you’re an advocate for using comic books in the classroom, why? Or, perhaps more importantly, how?

GLY: Comics first became a mass medium in the 1940s. Back then, they were selling millions of issues each month. Many American educators began researching how best to use comics into the classroom.

Then in 1954, child psychiatrist Fredric Wertham publish a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he argued that reading comic books caused juvenile delinquency. The book severely damaged the reputation of comics in the eyes of the public, and educators backed away from comics. Research into the educational usage of comic books effectively stopped.

It’s really just starting up again. Today, teachers, librarians, and parents are finally embracing comics. Many parents and teachers use graphic novels to engage reluctant readers. Others realize that comics are a medium worthy of study in and of itself.

Certain material is just better communicated through comics. As a very simple example, look at the instructions that come with every Lego set. They’re still pictures in an ordered sequence–comics, essentially. I guarantee they’re more effective than a pure text version would be.

GM: Is there a specific reason why you chose to have a female character and a black character as your main characters? In other words, what does diversity mean to you?

GLY: My mom is a COBOL programmer. Historically, coding was considered a woman’s discipline. It wasn’t for good reasons–the hardware was seen as the “important” part of the computer, so that was reserved for male engineers.

But the fact is, women feature prominently throughout the history of computer science. Ada Lovelace was the world’s first programmer. Grace Hopper, the inspiration for my main character Hopper, invented the compiler. It felt right, authentic, to have a girl as my protagonist.

Hopper’s best friend Eni is an African-American kid who’s really good at two things: basketball and coding. He is inspired by a number of people, including NBA superstar Chris Bosh. Most basketball fans don’t know this, but the two-time NBA champion is a full-on computer geek. His mom was a systems analyst and his dad an engineer. In high school, Bosh was a member of the National Honor Society and the math club. He entered college intending to major in computer imaging. Even now, he invests heavily in tech companies. Athletics and academics are often pitted against each other as opposing disciplines, but the fact is many people successfully pursue both.

GM: Some argue that programming is an art… Having your foot firmly in both programming and art, do you agree or disagree that there are some similarities?

GLY: Programming is absolutely an art. For every coding problem, there are elegant and inelegant solutions. There are brute force ways of getting the answer, and ways that require more finesse. And coders will argue about what constitutes elegance. That fuzziness points to art.

Programming is also very creative. When you code, you’re not discovering something that already exists, you’re making something new.

Thank you for your time, Gene. I look forward to the next book!

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