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Gene Yang previews Secret Coders

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New York Times best-selling author Gene Yang seems to have no shortage of projects, but his most recent one is his most personal yet. Today, along with illustrator Mike Holmes (Bravest Warriors), Yang is releasing a new graphic novel called Secret Coders, which aspires to do what seems impossible: adapt the world of computer coding to a story for all ages. And thanks to Yang’s knowledge and Holmes’ delightful art, it’s clear they’re on their way to success.

EW caught up with Yang to find out just how much personal experience went into creating his new book, and more.

EW: What inspired you to put Secret Coders together? Computer programming, which I know you’re more than familiar with, is like an art (or that’s how I think of it since I don’t understand it as well as others do!)

GENE YANG: Secret Coders is a project that’s been on my mind for a long, long time. I’m a cartoonist. I write and draw comic books and graphic novels. I’m also a coder. I majored in Computer Science at U.C. Berkeley and worked as a software developer for a couple of years. Then I taught high school computer science for over a decade and a half in Oakland, California. For the most part, these were two separate worlds for me. I taught programming by day and made comics by night. But I’ve always wanted to bring them together. I wanted to make an explicitly educational comic that taught readers the concepts I covered in my introductory programming class. That’s what Secret Coders is. It’s both a fun story about a group of tweens who discover a secret coding school, and an explanation of some foundational ideas in computer science.

Did you tap into any of your real life experiences as a computer programming teacher while writing this?

Absolutely! I taught in a very visual way. I drew a lot of charts and graphics. Many of those same techniques work well in a comic. In my classroom, I would start my lessons with a quick review of an old topic. Then, I would introduce a new topic. Finally, I would give my students a problem to solve on their own, one that would reinforce what I’d just taught. I tried to follow the same sequence in my book. I embedded a lesson into every chapter.

Related to that, I love that your characters are all so diverse, because the world needs more diversity in its books in every way. How much fun was it to create them?

My characters are inspired by real people. My protagonist is a seventh grader named Hopper. Her name — and her personality, to some extent — is a nod to Grace Hopper, one of the most influential coders to have ever walked the planet. Most people don’t realize this, but programming used to be considered a “woman’s” profession. It wasn’t for good reasons. The hardware was considered the “important” part of the computer, so that’s what the men worked on. But as a result, many of the giants in the history of coding were women. The first programmer was a woman, an English mathematician named Ada Lovelace. My mom was a COBOL programmer. It felt right to me to have a girl as the main character of Secret Coders.

Hopper’s best friend is an African American boy named Eni who’s really good at two things: basketball and coding. Eni is inspired by NBA superstar Chris Bosh. Bosh is a two-time NBA champion, but he’s also a straight-up computer nerd. His mom was a systems analyst and his dad an engineer. In high school, Bosh was a member of the National Honor Society and the math club. He entered college intending to major in computer imaging, but then left early for the NBA. Often, athletics and academics are seen as opposing forces, but that simply isn’t the case. There are many students like Bosh (and Eni) who can successfully juggle both. Hopper and Eni’s mentor is a grumpy old janitor named Mr. Bee who has a secret past. Bee is an embodiment of the ideals espoused by a computer scientist named Seymour Papert. Papert is something of a genius. He helped invent a computer programming language for kids called Logo, which was how I learned to code. Papert also worked on the Lego Mindstorms toy line. By including a wide array of inspirations, I’m hoping to reflect at least some of the diversity of the tech community.

Can you talk about collaborating with Mike Holmes? Was it fun seeing what he would come up with when you sent him scripts and talked about concepts of what this graphic novel would be?

Mike Holmes is a great cartoonist. Before Secret Coders, he worked on a cartoon called Bravest Warriors. His art has this wonderful Saturday morning energy that really leaps off the page. I feel very lucky to be able to work with him. Mike doesn’t have a lot of experience with coding, which turned out to be an asset for this project. He was able to tell me when things didn’t really make sense to a non-coder.

I know that you hope this book brings more awareness to the profession of computer programming, but in a more general sense, what kind of response do you hope to achieve with this book from the people who pick it up?

Not everybody is meant to be a professional software developer, but everyone can benefit from a general understanding of coding. Computers are such an important part of our lives. Coding concepts show up all over the place. For instance, I use Photoshop in my work as a cartoonist. Photoshop allows you to create Actions, which are stored sequences of tasks that you do over and over. In a way, creating an Action in Photoshop is creating code. Secret Coders can’t replace a good computer science teacher, but I hope it gets readers interested in learning more. I hope it’s an on-ramp.

What’s next for you in terms of projects?

September is a busy month for me. In addition to Secret Coders, I have two other comics coming out. One is Avatar: The Last Airbender – Smoke and Shadow from Dark Horse Comics. I’m a huge fan of Nickelodeon’s Avatar cartoon, so writing this graphic novel continuation has been a thrill. Smoke and Shadow is all about Fire Lord Zuko’s struggle with fear. The other comic is Superman #44 from DC Comics. I have privilege of writing the Man of Steel at a very tumultuous time in his life. In issue #43, Lois Lane revealed his secret identity to the world! Now everyone, including all of the DC universe’s super villains, know that Clark Kent is Superman! In this month’s issue, we show the fallout. Everybody wants a piece of Clark Kent!

Secret Coders is released today. Check out exclusive images below.

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