Most novelists don’t write code. Still fewer teach it. But Gene Luen Yang is a rarity: a nationally renowned writer with a techie past and an endless appetite for education. He's taught computer science in Oakland, CA for 17 years as he's racked up Eisners—comics Oscars—and National Book Award nominations.
In the latest of Yang's stream of accolades, the Library of Congress has appointed him the USA's National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. He is the first graphic novelist to assume the mantle since the post debuted in 2008. According to its website, the Library created the post to promote young people's literature "as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people." Yang will serve in the position for two years, appearing at events like the Children's Choice Book Awards. He also plans to use the post to advance Reading Without Walls, an initiative he and his publisher First Second developed to encourage young people to explore the unfamiliar by expanding the scope of their reading.
When I talked to Gene Luen Yang, he was on a book tour for his latest novel, "Secret Coders." He had just finished giving a demonstration, which, he said, “always gets gasps from the audience.” Decades ago, he learned Logo, a now-archaic programming language best known for its “turtle graphics” that facilitate rudimentary drawing. On his monitor and in his comics, Logo lives on, delighting students with its starbursts and pulling them into a new world. He had been using a computer program to draw squares on a screen then rotate them to create a star.
You may know Yang as the author of “American Born Chinese,” his most famous work that is required reading in many schools. Maybe you’ve read his contributions to “Avatar: the Last Airbender” or the “Superman” comics. You might have heard of him in connection to the Eisner Awards, of which Yang has won two and been nominated for two more. You could recognize him as a two-time National Book Award Finalist, the first graphic novelist to achieve the honor. "Secret Coders," which Yang coauthored with illustrator Mike Holmes, is already winning raves.
Yang, age 42, the son of a Chinese software engineer and a Taiwanese electrical engineer, began his career as a programmer in the Bay Area. But after some youth ministry work and a five-day silent retreat in 1997, he realized he was meant to teach. He left his dot-com-era software engineering position—goodbye gold rush—and became a computer science teacher at Bishop O’Dowd High School. During his transition, his father sent him newspaper clippings for jobs at software companies and articles comparing the salaries of teachers to those of engineers. Yang stuck with teaching and graphic novels, though, eventually becoming both the Director of Information Services at Bishop O’Dowd and an Eisner winner.
Teaching and storytelling, Yang discovered, turn out to be fraternal twins. Take a peek at a piece of Yang’s master’s thesis: Factoring with Mr. Yang and Mosley the Alien. Likewise, in "Secret Coders" Yang's protagonist learns about binary numbers and their foundational relationship to computers through four-eyed robotic birds. The demonstration is elegant, weaving a nascent friendship and the discovery of a secret (how the bird works—watch our for when they open all four eyes) into a lesson that doesn't feel like a lecture.
The novel unites his passions. "Secret Coders" is a graphic novel about a young girl making friends and discovering the secrets of her creepy new school through binary numbers and Logo. Think Hogwarts meets “The Matrix” for middle school kids. We’re interested in all Yang’s interests, so we spoke with him about "Secret Coders," teaching with comics and how computer science education has changed.
EdSurge: What inspired you to write "Secret Coders?"
Gene Luen Yang: I’ve been wanting to do "Secret Coders" for a long time. When I taught computer science in the classroom, I did it in a very visual way. I used a lot of drawings and charts. That’s what "Secret Coders" is: me trying to teach kids how to code through comics.
Where do you see parallels between your work as a graphic novelist and as a teacher?
The skills of coding are applicable in almost every other discipline, and that includes cartooning and making comics. When I am cartooning, I take a story that’s big and complex in my head and break it up into chapters then panels and then word balloons in each panel. There’s this modularization that happens with stories when you’re a cartoonist that mirrors the modularization of a computer project or a program.
You’ve said in interviews that you fictionalize your own life in American Born Chinese and other works. Is that true of "Secret Coders" as well?
Yes. I debated whether to use a more modern language instead of Logo, but I used Logo for a couple reasons: I wanted to draw the parallel between coding and magic. In magic, you’ll have this wizard say a couple of words, and it’s strange, and some kind of action happens. Coding is the exact same way. The coder types a bunch of words that seem odd and some kind of action happens on the screen. With magic, the words always seem like they’re from some forgotten language. Logo is the same way—it’s a forgotten language for the coder. I had so many adventures with that language. That’s what inspired my childhood love of coding.
Do you teach kids to want to learn coding because they’ll make friends and go on adventures?
Story is a powerful thing. Story is a way of getting at somebody’s heart. That’s what I want "Secret Coders" to do. I want it to be the storyline that goes with the discipline of coding. Try to pull at the reader’s heart so they have an emotional attachment to the discipline.
In your tenure as a computer science educator, what did you see as the biggest challenges in computer science education?
I taught computer science for over 15 years and during that time, we saw a drastic reduction in the number of kids taking coding classes. The school removed the computer requirement. For a decade, the school had a requirement where every student had to take a computer class to graduate. But then we came around to this notion that computer technology should be folded into every subject, every classroom. While that does happen, a side effect of that is that you lose the study of the computer, which, in itself, is a worthwhile object of study. It deserves a period in a schedule.
Looking at recent statistics, the number of AP computer science classes is actually going down. The number of introductory computer science classes in high schools is going down. I have been wondering if what happened in the microcosm of my school is happening in the macrocosm of American education.
How has teaching computer science changed?
There was a period of time when coding was seen as really cool—mostly during the dot com boom. There was a huge spike in interest. The bust did affect some kids’ enthusiasm for it.
Computers have gotten so user-friendly that modern people, maybe not just kids, expect the computer to come to us. There’s something really good about that—that’s a hallmark of good user interface design. But if you want to get into the nitty gritty of how to create new technology, you need to understand how the computer works natively.
Did you teach with the idea that everyone should be a coder?
Not everybody is meant to be a programmer, but the coding way of thinking is useful in almost every profession. Programming forces you to communicate clearly, think about the sequence in which you say and do things, think logically and to look for patterns. All of those can be applied everywhere. One of the challenges in my classroom was to get kids to see that. On the other side, in almost every class, you’ll have a couple kids who take to it like fish to water. It’s like they already knew how to code, and you just uncovered it for them.
I noticed that all the coding and directions in "Secret Coders" are very rudimentary (never mind that the kids are using a walking robot). How does that relate to how you teach computer science?
Everything complex in computer science starts off as a collection of simple building blocks. Every program is built on three structures: sequence, repetition, and selection.
It’s like teaching anything else: you scaffold. You start with very simple ideas then show the students how to combine them into things that are more complex. When they see something complex, that’s what I want them to think about: how do I break this complexity into simple parts?
How do you inspire the creativity necessary to write a graphic novel in your students? Especially if they see coding as a much more scientific and predetermined discipline.
Coding is inherently creative, so when I designed my projects, I tried to give my students some leeway about how they solve certain things. For example, the student will have to create a program that tallies up a bill at a restaurant. I’ll let them design the restaurant any way they want. To be honest, it was also a way for me to figure out if kids were cheating. If two kids came in with the same restaurant name, something funky was going on.
Did underrepresented populations in computer science go into your thinking when you were writing "Secret Coders?" Did that influence your choice of a black American and a young girl as the protagonists?
My characters are all based on real people. I did some research into the history of software development. Early on, programming was really considered a woman’s discipline. The first programmer on earth was Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician. Early on, the hardware was considered the really important part of the computer, and the software was not. The software was given to the women to do. What that ends up meaning is that the foundational ideas of computer science were created by women. For me, my Mom was a programmer. She was the one who signed me up for my first Logo class. I learned programming through a woman. It felt authentic to have [the main character] Hopper [like Grace Hopper] be a young girl and the primary character—the character through which the reader learns coding.
Eni [like Eniac] is inspired by one of my old students. I had an African-American student who was really good at programming, and he had this really muted personality. He never got excited about anything. Eni will never use an exclamation point. But Eni is also inspired by Chris Bosh, who’s considered an NBA superstar. He’s won the NBA championship twice. What a lot of people don’t realize is that Chris Bosh is a straight-up nerd. In high school, he was in the math club. When he got into college, he was planning on majoring in computer imaging and graphic design, but then he became super good at basketball and went to the NBA. In our society, we draw this line between athletics and being nerdy, but a lot of people like Chris Bosh do both. They’re not mutually exclusive. That’s what I want Eni to be. He’s both athletic and also super nerdy.
Who inspired you to pursue computer science?
I’ve mentioned my Mom, who was a programmer, but there was also my computer science teacher in high school, Mr. Matsuoka. He started off as a biology teacher. As coding became more popular, he taught it to himself. He was hired by the College Board to write the first AP Computer Science test. He was able to bridge that gap between student understanding and a subject that a lot of people consider esoteric. I remember one of the first classes he did every year was with a flashlight. He would talk about how the flashlight had two states: on and off. He would explain to us that these two states are the basis of computers.
What is the most surprising thing about being a graphic novelist? Something that your average computer science teacher doesn’t know.
Maybe it’s the fact that there’s so much overlap between programming and storytelling.
What is the most surprising thing about being a computer science teacher?
That it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun. It’s something I want to do again. It’s fun to interact with students; it’s fun to see that “Aha!” moment. It’s fun when you see your kid get the “coder’s high” for the first time when the project they’ve been working on for hours finally works.
You’ve recently retired from teaching. What do you miss about the classroom?
I like teaching; it’s not something I want to give up. I still teach remotely through a university when I’m on a book tour. I want to end my working life in the classroom, so at some point, I’ll go back.
What do you hope kids will do after they finish reading "Secret Coders?"
I hope the story gives them an emotional connection to computer science. In my ideal world, every kid who reads Secret Coders will sign up for a coding class.