By Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes
Warning! This book leaves you hanging. The Secret Coders is a very Oriental-American stylized book in both its art and execution. However at the base of it, behind all of the conspiracies surrounding her new school, and her mother’s separation (and being her Mandarin teacher), Hopper, the prime antagonist, and cohorts in education just can’t hide the fact that this is a learning tutorial in binary numbers and the lost computer language LOGO (complete with “turtle” – a rather cute robot).
Hopper is the young girl who drives the story forward. Her first school day at the eerie, Stately Academy, shows the growing pains that a change of environments allots. It is through this perspective of the world that the reader comes to meet her new friends and deepen the mysteries surrounding the school. As she becomes friends with others, the educational component of the book kick in. Not that there is a lot of action depicted (aside from a few brushes with the school custodian). The Secret Coders uses Hopper as an elegant sounding board through which to teach and inform. With the help of her friends the young reader learns to count in binary (at a basic level, and understand bits of programming, drawing (literally and figuratively) from the computer language LOGO.
The art is done in a hybrid of North American and Oriental styles. The characters are very stylized and cartoony, with over exaggerated gesture. The panels are grid like at the fundamental level, and very easy to read; especially for the 8-12 age category. Minimalist backgrounds don’t conceal the budding programmers (or coders) and actively use repetition in the panels to reinforce the learning material. Being simplistic in design, allows Gene Luan Han, to tell the story, and impart lessons with the minimal of fuss.
The story is what would draw young programmers into it. Who hasn’t had pre-school jitters, and with the 4 eyed birds, secret numbers lying about the premises, and a problem to be solved will have most kids hooked. The writing is not over simplistic or too wordy and imparts its information gracefully from one page to the next, building upon the lessons to be learned, and not doing so in a patronizing manner. Being the first book in the series, of course, Mr. Han would leave us with a cliffhanger; all the more reason for the child to come up with his own solution to the “end of the chapter problem” and compare it to what is found out next.
Overall, the story and art complement each other well in the Secret Coders, and the fundamental teaching mechanism is not lost. I only wish it could have developed the characters a little more beyond the two dimensional, but that would have impacted the message. For the budding young programmer, young children who like problem solving, and lovers of LOGO (of which I suspect there are few left), the Secret Coders has got the right stuff for you.