BookTalk: Secret Coders

by Sharon Kane

secret-codersI picked up Secret Coders, by Gene Luen Yang & Mike Holmes (2015, First Second), for two reasons. First, I recognized the first author as the creator of a number of award-winning graphic novels (a book talk for one of his graphic novels was posted on this site earlier this summer and can be seen here: http://hhpcommunities.com/youngadultlit/2016/07/07/book-talk-boxers-and-saints) and as the 2015–2016 National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature. Also, for a while I have been feeling the need, as the instructions on the bottom of the front cover say, to “Get with the PROGRAM.” I’ve been reading about the value of coding for students and the recommendations for promoting (or even requiring) coding courses in schools. I figured I should learn a bit about it, and what better way to learn how to program computers than through a story told using a graphic-novel format?

The protagonist of Secret Coders, Hopper, has just started at a new school with many creepy characteristics, including a scary janitor, birds that transmit messages through opening and closing their eyes, and binary numbers posted around the campus. Hopper and her new friend Eni figure out the combination to unlock the janitor’s shed; there they find a robot and the program that directs it to complete tasks. Readers are periodically invited to solve logic problems and actively code while following the mystery that is unfolding at the school.

The story stops abruptly, just as three middle school students are given a challenge by the janitor. “Here is another Path Portal, more complex than the one in the courtyard. Succeed in opening it and I will reveal to you the secret of Stately Academy. Fail and you are never to set foot on campus again” (p. 88). Readers are told that the story continues in Secret Coders: Paths & Portals (just released on August 30) and are instructed to visit www.secret-coders.com if they are ready to start coding. Students who visit the site will find downloadable activities, coding lessons, videos, an art gallery, and an invitation to subscribe to Yang’s email list and receive a free comic describing his start in comics.

Secret Coders, with its companion website, offers an interdisciplinary, interactive reading experience. Here’s to the power of binary numbers!

Appropriate for intermediate and middle grades

Math, technology, ELA

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BookTalk: Biographies of Ada Byron Lovelace

by Sharon Kane

I am fascinated by stories of people with highly developed talents and passions. Ada Byron Lovelace’s life story is one I have only recently discovered, and I can’t get enough of it.

ada1I began by reading a picture book by Laurie Wallmark, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, illustrated by April Chu (2015, Creston Books). The book opens with a description of Ada’s father, Lord Byron, whose scandalous behavior resulted in her mother’s leaving him when Ada was a baby. Ada never knew her father, although ironically he was famous throughout the world.

The book describes Ada’s childhood in early nineteenth century England, filled with a love of mathematics combined with a vivid imagination, resulting in attempts to invent a flying machine. Her mother ensured that she had professional tutors, as well as influential friends, including Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday. Ada found a kindred spirit in Charles Babbage, designer of the Difference Engine, which Ada was able to try out. Babbage also invented a more powerful Analytical Engine, for which Ada created an algorithm, consisting of a series of mathematical instructions. “The world’s first computer program was complete” (unpaged).

In the Author’s Note, I learned that Ada signed her translation of an article about Babbage’s Analytic Engine, along with additions that included her design for what we would call a computer program, with only her initials, in order to hide her gender. Wallmark’s statement, “Unfortunately, society and circumstances made it difficult for Ada to live the life she dreamed of, that of a professional mathematician” (unpaged), seemed like an understatement to me and I needed to know more.

ada2Next I turned to Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age, by James Essinger (2014, Melville House). The early chapters give a lot of information about Lord Byron, including an account from his butler that his dying words were “‘Oh, my poor dear child!-my dear Ada! my God, could I have seen her! Give her my blessing…'” (p. 44). His funeral entourage through London streets involved 47 carriages, with a huge crowd of onlookers that did not include Ada or Lady Byron.

This biography is filled with many details of the friendship and collaboration of Ada and Charles Babbage. Essinger’s research leads him to believe that in some ways Ada’s thinking was far ahead of Babbage’s; for example, she was able to envision future applications of the Analytic Engine and had skills in other areas where he had limitations. After quoting an excerpt from Ada’s Notes (one that left me breathless and exhausted), the author remarks, “This 158-word sentence is very likely one of the longest sentences in the history of science, but it is also one of the most intriguing. Ada succeeds in this one sentence in linking mathematics, science, religion and philosophy” (p. 168). He calls another of her sentences perhaps “… the most visionary sentence ever written during the nineteenth century” (p. 169).

Given that Ada’s contributions were so crucial, why didn’t she receive more recognition and acclaim during her own (tragically short) lifetime? Why is Ada Lovelace not a name recognized by all? Why is she not a prominent part of our curriculum? Essinger offers an explanation:

One of the biggest problems was that Ada was a woman, and although she had signed her Notes only with the initials A.A.L., her authorship soon became generally known. The very fact that she was a woman ended up working against her, because the scientific community did not take her work seriously, as it would have done if she had been a man. (p. 192)

Happily, Ada is today lauded and respected by many, and books such as the two discussed here will help many more readers appreciate her superior mind and her enduring and productive passion for mathematics.

 

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine is appropriate for intermediate grades and beyond.

Ada’s Algorithm is appropriate for high school and beyond.

technology, math, history, ELA