“The idea for Hello Ruby was born when I was learning to program. Whenever I ran into a problem, I would ask myself how a small, fierce girl would tackle it.”
“The way that young people’s minds develop is fascinating,” Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak once remarked during an interview. “If you are doing something for a grade or salary or a reward, it doesn’t have as much meaning as creating something for yourself and your own life.” But what’s the best way for parents to introduce their kids to coding so that they can independently start using technology to create things? Author and illustrator Linda Liukas thinks she has the answer.
After cofounding the women’s coding group Rails Girls and working at the code instruction website Codecademy, Liukas decided to try her hand at something different. She collected her illustrations, created a Kickstarter campaign, and raised nearly $400k to write a new children’s book about coding. The result was Hello Ruby (public library), a book that gently introduces 5-7 year-olds to what Liukas calls the “fundamentals of computational thinking.” The 112-page book is crammed full of personable characters, engaging stories, charming artwork, and — for ambitious parents and children — a 40-page activity book with 22 exercises.
The hero of the story is Ruby, a “small, fierce girl” who is independent and adventurous. Ruby’s father leaves her a scavenger hunt that leads her on an adventure to find five gems. Ruby is up for the challenge because she knows that “big problems are just lots of little problems stuck together.” Along the way, she makes friends and uses critical thinking skills to accomplish her tasks.
It’s refreshing to see a female character with such a fiercely independent and rebellious streak. Readers learn early on that Ruby doesn’t like being told what to do.
One thing Ruby doesn’t like is to be told what to do. Sometimes this means trouble — especially if the instructions are unclear.
When Ruby’s dad asks her to get dressed for school, she puts on her dress and shoes, but keeps her polka-dot pajamas on. After all, Dad didn’t tell her to first change out of her pajamas.
When it’s time to clean up her toys, Ruby puts her stuffed animals, building blocks, and toy house away, but leaves her drawing pencils on the floor.
‘Pencils aren’t really toys,’ she says cheekily.
Ruby’s attitude embodies what is commonly referred to in technology circles as the hacker ethic. Of course, the term “hacker” in this context refers to an exceptionally skilled software engineer who doesn’t like following rules, not an individual who illegally compromises computer systems. Paul Graham, the founder of the Y Combinator technology startup accelerator, described hackers as people who “are trying to write interesting software, and for whom computers are just a medium of expression, as concrete is for architects or paint for painters.”
There are numerous allegories present in the story. Take the characters, for instance. Ruby is also the name of a popular programing language. Penguins are an obvious reference to Tux, the mascot of the Linux operating system. Foxes probably get their name from the Firefox web browser, robots the Android operating system, Snow Leopard a previous version of Mac OS X, and Django the Python framework. Indeed, the personalities of the characters seem to resemble, and perhaps personify, their namesake organizations and software projects.
As you might expect, there are programming principles embedded in the stories, but they’re presented in a subtle, non-invasive way. For instance, when the foxes are having a hard time weeding their garden and planting carrot seeds, Ruby gives them instructions with loops and conditionals.
Ruby observes all the craziness and comes up with an idea. She raises her voice and gets everyone’s attention. ‘You, you, and you — you’re the planters. You need a bag of seeds. If the hole is empty, drop in one carrot seed. If there’s already a seed, move on. Keep going until you hit the end of the row, then move to the next row. Repeat the whole thing five times.’
Is there really a need for yet another children’s coding book? There are already stacks of books out there that profess to introduce children to the principles of computer science. Liukas addresses this concern in her poignant and personal introduction message. She says that stories and activities should be central to any children’s technology book.
We all have stories that shape the way we see the world as adults. Like invisible friends, our childhood stories stay with us and influence our tastes for years to come. I think we need more of these voices and stories that are able to review the playful side of things.
Play is at the core of learning. Coding is like crayons or LEGO blocks — a way to express yourself. This book is not about ‘learning to code.’ It doesn’t teach any specific programming languages, but introduces the fundamentals of computational thinking that every future kid coder will need.
Kids will learn how to break big problems into small problems, look for patterns, create step-by-step plans, and think outside the box. With activities included in every chapter, future kid coders will be thrilled to put their own imaginations to work.
In short, the creative combination of heartwarming stories and engaging activities in Hello Ruby significantly raises the bar for children’s technology books. This is one book that should be on the shelf of any 5-7 year-old who is interested in technology. Complement it with the resources on Liukas’ Hello Ruby website and with additional kid’s coding books.