Technology Personified: Hello Ruby Uses Storytelling to Introduce Children to Coding

“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.”

Hello Ruby book cover“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.

Artwork from the book Hello Ruby

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.

Artwork from the book Hello Ruby

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.”

Artwork from the book Hello Ruby

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.

Artwork from the book Hello Ruby

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.’

Artwork from the book Hello Ruby

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.

Coding for Kids: Linda Liukas on Nurturing Your Child’s Technical Imagination

“Kids are the most efficient learners in the world. They learn so much so fast when they are motivated, and when they aren’t, nothing happens.”

Linda LiukasWhen Linda Liukas started programming in 2009, she wondered whether she could help make coding more approachable and fun for kids. She never dreamed that the doodles she created in her sketchbook would later become the basis for Hello Ruby, a beautifully illustrated children’s book for 5-7 year olds. Filled with engaging short stories and personable characters, the book gently introduces computer science concepts without delving into any of the technical aspects of programming.

In two revealing interviews, Liukas provided insight into her creative process and shared thoughts on how parents can introduce their children to the world of programming.

Traditionally, the people who’ve taught computer science and programming have been a very homogenous group of individuals. My idea was to try to explore computer science and programming from a different angle, mainly the angle of storytelling.

Hello Ruby is a book about a little girl named Ruby who travels around the world and solves problems with her friends. For example, there’s the Snow Leopard, who’s very beautiful but doesn’t want to play with the other, messy kids. In a way she’s a representation of Apple. There are the Androids, and the Firefoxes, and a slew of other quirky characters, because for me, technology is very profoundly human.

I’ve always seen the human aspect of technology—stories within the world of technology and programming, and for some reason, other people always see it as very cold and mechanical and number-oriented. But it’s not, it’s about words and people and interactions and logic. Logic can be beautiful too.

Liukas observed in the book’s Kickstarter campaign that “illustrations are as important as the story.” Her careful attention to detail is evident throughout the book in the gorgeous artwork on every page.

Artwork from the book Hello Ruby
Ruby and her friends star in short stories that present computer science concepts in a kid-friendly way.

As an early employee at Codecademy, a technology startup company that teaches people to code, Liukas learned how to create programming lessons using instructional technology. But she isn’t convinced that technology is the only way to teach children about programming.

I believe stories are the most formative force of our childhood. The stories we read growing up affect the way we perceive the world as we grow up. For some reason narratives haven’t been used as part of technology education, even though a lot of research suggests that stories are the best way to understand new concepts, especially in childhood but also when adults. So for me it was a natural fit. When I started drawing Ruby’s adventures, I began to see stories and characters everywhere in the technology world.

However, such a huge part of our daily lives is spent in front of a screen. I believe there’s a lot of value in parents and children exploring and interacting offline. That’s why Hello Ruby is aimed for 5-7 year olds to be read together at bedtime with the parent — kids who don’t necessarily read or write yet on their own. And there’s a wealth of knowledge about computers and computing concepts we can teach to the little ones before even opening the terminal.

Liukas’ emphasis on exploring and interacting offline may seem to contradict the ultimate goal of teaching kids to code, but it’s strikingly similar to the principles of Waldorf education. As noted in a New York Times article about a Waldorf school in Silicon Valley, the Waldorf method utilizes a non-technical approach to education. Many Waldorf schools don’t provide computers for children to use, and they generally frown upon children using electronic devices at home.

Linda Liukas
Linda Liukas believes children can learn the underpinnings of technology by reading stories. “The goal is to understand the basics of computational thinking—even before you actually learn the words and the theoretical background for those things.”

Her advice to parents hoping to teach their kids to code? Find a way to motivate them.

Kids are the most efficient learners in the world, they learn so much so fast when they are motivated, and when they aren’t, nothing happens. Find out what motivates that specific kid, and what makes them interested in technology. Maybe it’s making a game, maybe it’s something else.

Liukas recommends nurturing your child’s problem solving skills by encouraging them to practice new skills and helping them find a project to work on.

Learning to rely on your own ability to solve problems is probably one of the most important attitudes I would take.

The second thing is repetition. Nobody anticipates being able to speak fluent French after attending a one-week workshop or even a six-month course. It’s a lifelong commitment to practice and learning. If that skill system sounds exhilarating, I would recommend finding a group of people who are also excited about learning how to program. For instance, the Ruby community is amazing in the sense that it arranges a lot of meetings and meet-ups—events where beginners are totally welcome to join.

So, first of all, being a problem solver, then finding a peer group of people who can help you. Third and fourth would be having a project that you’re really fascinated by and that forces you to learn. Choosing a problem that’s a problem in your life and figuring out how to solve it with programming, at least for me, has been one of the most effective ways to learn.

Liukas’ interviews are available in their entirety on Signal Tower and GeekDad.

Hello Ruby is a great book for parents looking to expose their 5-7 year olds to technology and coding concepts. Complement it with the resources on Liukas’ Hello Ruby website and with additional kid’s coding books.