by Klint Finely)
Linda Liukas wrote her first lines of computer code when she was 13 years old. She was inspired by the man who was then the vice president of the United States. “I was madly in love with Al Gore,” she says, “so I decided to make a website about him.”
She started with a crush on Al Gore, but she ended up with a new love: programming
Now, 14 years later, she wants to help others discover the joys of coding, perhaps at an even younger age. She recently wrote a children’s book called Hello Ruby that uses a simple narrative and accompanying illustrations to explore the basics of computer programming. The book tells the story of a young girl named Ruby and her many friends, including a less-than-meticulous android, a solitary snow leopard, and a book-smart penguin. Through her adventures, Ruby explores loops, variables, and other core coding concepts.
The book is part of a larger “code literacy” movement that aims to push us into a world where even the average person knows how to code. This includes online code courses from the likes of Codecademy and in-person hacker boot camps like Hack Reactor, but also projects that aim to capture minds at an impressionable age.
Some are skeptical of these efforts, but Hello Ruby has obviously struck a chord. The book’s Kickstarter campaign — meant to fund additional work on the project — met its original goal of $10,000 in just three and a half hours, and Liukas has gone on to raise well over $250,000, with 17 days left to go.
As digital technologies play an increasingly important role in our world — and software developers command ever larger salaries — computer science researchers, educators, and parents are working to introduce programming skills to our children at younger and younger ages. At places like Google and MIT, researchers are even building new programming languages that can help kids learn to code.
Storybooks are just the latest tool in the toolbox. In 2012, coders Carlos Bueno and Ytaelena Lopez published a children’s programming book called Lauren Ipsum, and Hello Ruby continues the trend. The book is similar to Lauren Ipsum, but according to Liukas, it was written for an even younger audience. Whereas Lauren Ipsum is meant for kids in the eight-to-12 age range, Hello Ruby is aimed at four to seven year olds.
Liukas has long been a part of the code literacy community. After studying programming in college, she founded a coding group for women called Rails Girls, which focused on the Ruby programming language and its Rails framework for building web applications, and she was one of the first employees of Codecademy, a New York outfit that’s the most well-known of the online hacker schools.
Kids Like Loops
She started work on the project in earnest last year, when she moved back to her native Finland. She wrote the entire book and laid out each page, but before doing the final drawings, she wanted a copy editor to look over her story and make sure her English was correct. Some friends suggested she raise money on Kickstarter — but she never expected so much.
“I’m totally surprised,” she says. “Never in a million years did I think there would be that much interest. But now I can work on it full-time for the next year.”
She now plans to sell the book alongside a workbook that will reinforce the lessons from Ruby’s tale — “the book is an adventure story, but the workbook is more about teaching the foundations,” she says — as well as a parent’s guide, which will help parents teach the programming concepts even if they don’t have a programming background. She may also add an “art show,” a series of illustrations that will let kids virtually “crawl inside a computer and see how it works.”
Recently, just to make sure its exercises are clear, she’s been testing the book at a local grade school. And it’s having the desired effect, at least in some respects. “So far, loops have been a big thing with the kids,” she says. “Kids seem to like repeating things.”
Klint Finley is a writer with Wired Enterprise. Got a tip? Send him an email at: me [at] klintfinley.com.
Follow @klintron on Twitter.