This post is from a series sponsored by Macmillan, publisher of the Hello Ruby children’s book. You can also read Part One (Thinking Like a Programmer), Part Two (Learning Through Fiction), and Part Three (Thinking Like a Computer).
GeekDad: What prompted you to write Hello Ruby?
Linda Liukas: I was teaching myself programming in 2009 and started doodling the Ruby character in my notes. Whenever I ran into a problem like what is garbage collection or how does object-oriented programming work, I’d try to imagine how little Ruby would explain it. The imaginative viewpoint of a small girl soon started to pop up everywhere in the technology world, and I knew I had a book in my hands.
Code is the interface to my generation’s imagination, and the need for people to speak the ABCs of Programming is imminent. Our world is increasingly run by software, and we need more diversity in the people who are building it.
GD: Why did you choose to go with a narrative format instead of a textbook style?
Liukas: 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/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.
GD: What made you decide to crowdfund your book? Are there any lessons you learned, or anything you would do differently, that would help someone else who is looking to crowdfund their book idea?
Liukas: Crowdfunding allows me to directly reach out to people all over the world who want to teach their kids code. I’m not sure traditional publishers would have immediately seen the magic of Ruby’s world – although now it’s obvious that there is a huge market for material like this.
Kickstarter was the perfect platform to bring to life a creative project like this. I can reach people from all over the world who care about code education and form a community around the process of making the book. I think Kickstarter is Internet at it’s best. As Joi Ito put it, “Internet is not a technology, it’s a belief system.” I documented a lot of the process of running the campaign here, and there were definitely lot of mistakes I made, especially with the production of the book and scheduling. On the other hand, if I had known how hard it would be, I would have never even tried. So I’m glad all of this happened.
GD: Before you wrote Hello Ruby, you founded Rails Girls. In a country where 57% of all bachelor’s degrees are earned by women, but only 12% of computer science degrees, what can we do to get more young girls interested in pursuing computer science and technology in general?
Liukas: I don’t believe coding should be communicated for girls in a pink princess way, or that the message is much different. Rather I choose to highlight that writing software is about expression, creativity — and practical application. Our kids should learn to bend, join, break and combine code in a way it wasn’t designed to. Just as they would with crayons and paper or wood and tools. I want to show how coding can be as creative a tool as music or drawing or words. You create something out of nothing, with pure words and thought structures. Learning programming teaches you to look at the world in a different way.
I don’t think everyone will be a coder, but the ability to speak and structure your thinking in a way a computer understands it will be one of the core future skills whatever your field. Game designers, biologists, data analysts…there are not that many professions that wouldn’t benefit from computational thinking skills. Programming languages will come and go, but our world will become only more technical.
GD: Nearly half of Hello Ruby is devoted to playful programming activities, none of which requires a computer. Do you feel that hands-on play is more conducive for learning than a classroom environment? Is it dependent upon age?
Liukas: Each chapter in the story represents one topic in the workbook. The book won’t teach the kid any one programming language: rather it supports learning the foundational thinking structures behind every programming language. When a kid learns to spot computational thinking in everyday situations, they’ll also be able to learn abstract programming languages more easily.
The book familiarizes kids with fundamentals of programming, computational thinking, and the attitudes that are important for any future programmer. These include things like the ability to decompose a problem, spot patterns, think algorithmically, debug problems, and work together. I’m a big believer in play for all ages.
GD: Can we look forward to further adventures with Ruby and her friends in the near future?
Liukas: I wish this is my 20-year career plan and I won’t have to work on other stuff 🙂 That being said Ruby’s world is only in the very beginning: I’d like to make more books, mobile apps, maybe even an art show where you crawl inside a computer.
Thanks to Linda Liukas for taking the time to chat. You can learn more about Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding from the publisher’s website.
About Linda Liukas
Linda is a programmer, storyteller, and illustrator from Helsinki, Finland. Her children’s book, Hello Ruby, made its debut on Kickstarter and quickly smashed its $10,000 funding goal after just 3.5 hours and gathering $380,000 in total funding. Hello Ruby is the most funded book in Kickstarter’s children’s book category.
Linda is a central figure in the world of programming and was working on edutech before it was called that. Linda is the founder of Rails Girls, a global phenomenon teaching the basics of programming to young women all over the world. The workshops, organized by volunteers in over 160 cities, have in a few years taught more than 10,000 women the foundations of programming.
Linda has studied business, design, and engineering at Aalto University and product engineering at Stanford University. She was selected the 2013 Ruby Hero (the most notable prize within the Ruby programming community), and she’s the Digital Champion of Finland, appointed by EU commissioner Neelie Kroes.