February 04, 2016

Thursday Review: SECRET CODERS by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes

Summary: I've been meaning to review this one for an embarrassingly long time. I had looked forward to reading it ever since first hearing about it—we are huge fans of our own (relatively) local Gene Yang here at FW and have not only interviewed him but have reviewed nearly all of his wonderful graphic novels (see a roundup of that here, on our post about his appointment as Children's Literature Ambassador).

Anyway, The Secret Coders--the first book in a new series that promises lots of fun and adventure (and CODE)—did not disappoint. And, especially as it comes during a time when a lot of effort is being put into STEM education for girls, and there are groups out there like Girls Who Code and so forth, it made me very happy to see this adventure into the world of programming being led by a (mixed race!) girl, Hopper.

It's not just about coding, though. This book is about the perennially relatable theme of being the new kid in school—and it just happens to be a school where something SUPER CREEPY is going on. Why is the shed door padlocked? Why is the janitor so crabby about them going near it? (MUST be something interesting in there.) Why do all the birds have FOUR EYES? Hopper is confronted with all of these questions at the same time that she's trying to make new friends at her new school, where nobody seems to be amused by her cool robot voice. Luckily, she does manage to find a friendly face, and her new friend Eni even helps her decode the secret of the four-eyed birds. But when the two of them find out what's in the locked garden shed, all craziness breaks loose…very, very slowly…

Click to embiggen
Peaks: Like many of us who were kids in the 1980s, in grade school I learned to use a computer program called Turtle Graphics that taught a programming language called Logo. At the time, we had exactly TWO computers in my 4th grade classroom and you mainly got to use them as a reward for getting your other work done. Your "reward" was learning how to direct an onscreen cursor to draw really boring pictures really slowly using text commands. (That's how I remember it, anyway.)

Much as I thought at the time that this was a terribly inefficient way to draw pictures, it was one of the earliest opportunities for kids in school to start learning very simple programming. I'm sure it set the right tone for me, many years later, to be unafraid to try tackling HTML and CSS. And this graphic novel brings back those memories and provides some actual coding—and decoding—fun for a new generation of readers, with try-it-yourself coding problems that you can solve right along with the characters.

Of course, this book isn't all about learning how to translate numbers in binary and learning how to command a so-called turtle (imagine the disappointment! the "turtle" was a mere triangle!) to draw geometric shapes. Hopper is an appealing and funny main character, and one of the hilarious parts of the story is watching her make friends with Eni, who then teaches her the secrets of binary and logo. Appropriately (since many a 1980s computer had those green-on-black screens), the book is printed in green and black, but don't let the simplicity of the color choices fool you: there's plenty of fun stuff going on here, and just as the story brings us to an exciting peak with robots and angry janitors and the ultimate test of the kids' coding skills (and yours, if you choose to follow along)—you're left with a cliffhanger. Until next time, kids.

So easy, a monkey could do it!
Valleys: Don't be silly. There are no valleys here, unless you don't like books that are mildly educational. This would be a great title in or out of the classroom—I could easily see my dad handing me a copy of this way back when in his unsuccessful attempts to get me to become an engineer. It might have been more effective than good old Computer Tutor Junior over there…

Conclusion: This will surely appeal to fans of other graphic novel series where kids solve the mystery of a creepy school—e.g. Gunnerkrigg Court—as well as existing fans of Gene Yang's work.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of First Second Books. You can find SECRET CODERS by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!


tanita✿davis said...

I cringe in Monkey Tutor's general direction. Erg. Yeah, fifth grade we got the "treat" of coding very slow programs that produced... butterflies. Very geometrically shaped DOS butterflies. Because we'd done well and finished our work.

*throws up hands*

This sounds like a much, much better option.

Sarah Stevenson said...

That is the actual book my dad got me. It has stuff like a word search puzzle with words like "cobol" and "fortran."

tanita✿davis said...

*Tutor Monkey side-eye turns to all-out snorting laughter*

Yay, word searches... not.

I'm pretty sure my 5th grade teacher and your Dad were, like, secretly corresponding on materials. We had crossword puzzles which included Cobol and Fortran and all the coding terms as answers. Which he made. Himself.

On one hand, gotta hand it to him - I've made a few crosswords in my teaching day, and they're a pain in the butt. On the other hand... no. Just no.

Sarah Stevenson said...

HAHAHAA!! Another funny thing--the price tag from the educational bookstore was still on the back of the workbook, and it was $4.95. That was some serious bones back in 1983 or whatever.