“I’m going to tell you a story —
“– a story about me.
“But I’m telling you so you’ll remember —
“– remember about you.”
—Secret Coders, Gene Luen Yang
So begins the first book in the Secret Coders series – and truer words couldn’t have been spoken about both books for me.
While the books center on the adventures of Hopper at her new school – a creepy institution named the Stately Academy, complete with padlocked doors, a cranky janitor, and a really, really tough Mandarin teacher. The kids are not exactly welcoming to begin with, but a random encounter with some incredibly…predictable…four-eyed birds and numbers around campus allows Hopper and her new friends Eni and Josh to discover that there’s much more to the eye. The numbers allow for them to decipher and figure out simple coding – and in the process with well-timed invitations in the writing and art, allow for the reader to solve it out with them.
While I haven’t been to a creepy school with birds or tried to plan for turtle robots to do my bidding, I did feel transported back to a time when I could remember my first encounters with coding. I was probably in late elementary school. My dad had purchased a monitor and a BASIC “computer” – and a BASIC programming book. There were short programs about flipping coins. There were longer programs (pages and pages and pages of commands long) to create a Clue-type game. My brother and I discovered that if we changed some of the words in the commands, we could make the coin flip “Cindy” or “Matt” instead of “heads” or “tails.” We could change who the characters were or the murder weapons or the places where the murder could’ve taken place. We noticed when we changed the numbers or the commands themselves, things didn’t necessarily work the way we wanted them to work.
We spent a lot of time that summer when we first got the “computer” figuring out how these simple programs ran because we had to retype them. Frequently. (Pretty much every time Mom told us it was time to eat because we had to shut it down and it wouldn’t/couldn’t save anything…) Our typing skills weren’t great, so we found that our typos had effects.
And as soon as we made a mistake, we realized the opportunity in front of us and messed to see what else we could do with this new twist of fate.
We spent hours tied to that machine – in an age when most kids didn’t have a chance to do that. And while I found it fun, while I found it challenging, I realized over the years that as computers became more sophisticated, there was less room for me to tinker and play with commands and settings. Computers were for typing papers and doing research in high school and college.
The magic and wonder of being able to make things happen with a recipe like that faded from my memory for a really long time.
But even as an adult who loves to tinker with tech – apps and website design and technology in general – I can’t say that I have ever found something that rekindled that spark of joy in discovery as these books.
But checking out the Secret Coders books wasn’t the only invitation I had with this blog tour. Gene Luen Yang has been inviting us all as readers to step out of our comfort zone to read more books about STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math.
This wasn’t tough for me. I have long had a love for science and have found reading up on it to be inspiring and fascinating. Most of the STEM titles I read though are for adults so I get really excited when I get to connect with books I can share with my son.
Here’s what my bonus reading looked like:
I bought a copy of Primates to own and reread. I have been a fan of graphic novels for forever – and of Jim Ottaviani since I read Feynman (even though I know I don’t understand even half the physics that shows up in that book) – but this book, with its beautiful muted blues and greens and browns, captured my attention from beginning to end. I’d known about Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, but Birutė Galdikas was unfamiliar to me. Their stories woven together as they venture into the world of male researchers and in the field with their chosen subjects pointed out so much more than I knew before about their work. The story of their lives and research is far more complex than just knowing about their subjects; the politics surrounding their ground-breaking work was maddening. When I read it after it first came out, my jaw was sore from clenching it, realizing just how much they were up against – just how much they gave up for their work and how much they had to fight to be able to continue their studies.
I pulled my copy of Radioactive from the shelves in my classroom. I had read part of the story about Irène Joliot-Curie and Lise Meitner – two extraordinary physicists whose work has more than left its mark on their field. Author Winifred Conkling is writing at an upper middle school/high school level with what she has to share here about their research – and ultimately the lack of recognition by both the Academy and the very people who benefit from their work today. This reads more like a well-paced novel than it does a book about history or science – in part because Conkling is a fantastic story-teller.
I used this post as an excuse to purchase Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. I’ll be honest – I haven’t read all of this yet as it just came in the mail, but the artwork and the short biographies on so many women I know – Lise Meitner and Jane Goodall make appearances in these pages as well as Rachel Carson and Rosalind Franklin and Grace Hopper (who must surely be inspiration for Hopper’s name in the Secret Coders books) – but there are so many names there that I don’t know yet. That – plus a great timeline and glossary – make this a book worth looking into.
Last, but most certainly not least, was Sally Ride by Tam O’Shaughnessy. I remember when I was in elementary school, I had my heart set on being an astronaut. I snuck downstairs and watched The Right Stuff with my dad. I wrote fan mail to Chuck Yeager (yes, I know he didn’t go to space – but breaking the sound barrier was an important piece of that movie and it’s forever tied to my thoughts about space and astronauts) and I read about everything I could get my hands on that was about space travel. In that reading, I began to follow Sally Ride’s career.
For that reason, this book was new to me and I felt like I was reliving familiar territory for most of the book, but for some reason I had such a strong emotional reaction to this book. (I’m tearing up just thinking about it now). I honestly don’t think I realized how much of an impact she had on me, but in reading these pages, I recalled how I realized that shift from the all-male crew from The Right Stuff to Ride’s missions in space. It was a quiet realization but a powerful one. No one had ever told me that girls couldn’t do that – in fact, my father and mother made efforts to make sure that I knew I could do anything I set my mind to doing. No one talked about girls not being able to code, or go to grad school, or become doctors, or go into space. Not in my house. But the world’s images had been blasted onto my brain from TV and movies and newspapers and everything. Girls weren’t heroes or scientists or astronauts; they were Daphne and Velma waiting to be rescued from the monsters on Scooby Doo. (Because, let’s face it – no matter how smart Velma was, she was always at the mercy of her lost glasses in those episodes.) Sally Ride was the antidote to all of that – and I never really felt like there was any field that was out of my reach.
We went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum this summer and I was thrilled to see a whole case dedicated to Sally Ride. (Please excuse the wide eyes here – I was simultaneously thrilled and worried that the tears might show in the selfie.)
So, Mr. Yang, you’re right. I did remember about myself. Thank you for the invitation and thank you for the opportunity. May many other kids find and remember themselves and their curiosity in your books.
Check out the rest of the tour!