Secret Coders is pretty amazing. I, as an adult, learned something from it. I don’t know code. I wish I did, but at least after reading this book I know something about it. That’s partially what makes it amazing, it’s trying to teach you while you read and it does a heck of a job at it. There used to be a lot of books like this. Books that were fun to read and yet taught you something. In fact, I would argue that reading should do that a lot. Even if it’s dumb stuff like what LED stands for (I’ll save you the google search it’s “light emitting diode”, but the question you should really ask is what is a diode?). I remember reading a lot of books as a kid and learning just one simple thing. It might even be how I learn today. I know how to hold my throat if ever cut by a madman with a knife. My wife often asks me, “how do you know that?” to which my reply is almost always… comic books.
To read a book that is clearly for kids and young adults and to experience a story that is entertaining, mysterious, well told and actually takes the time to teach something to reader… well it was pretty spectacular. It re-instilled my faith in literature for the youth because you really only see the turds that float to the top, you know vampires and death games.
The story follows Hopper, a young girl that has just transferred to a new town and school. She’s of course not happy about it because if you’ve ever transferred schools you know that it sucks. Starting over in any social setting sucks, but since schools are like little prisons, it’s even worse.
She heads into the school and notices a giant number “9” on the front of the building. From there she notices a padlock on the door and thinks she's been locked out on her first day. The janitor is quick to shoo her away and tell her to stay away from there. It’s very suspicious. After finding the proper school entrance, she attempts to make friends with three boys with a basketball and it goes south quickly. She walks away defeated until one of them flicks pudding in her hair. She heads back and spits on the boy who did it and almost gets into a fight.
At lunch Hopper sits alone and realizes that no one’s going to walk over to her and strike up a conversation. A weird bird comes over to her and when it catches a look at her number “7” earrings it’s eyes change… suddenly it has three open eyes. The boy she threw pudding on approaches her because she’s just confirmed something he’s suspected about this school since kindergarten. His name is Eni and he gives us our first lesson about code.
There’s a lot of story left, but I did want to get you to the first lesson. Here’s where the mystery of the school is set up, but there’s several twists left for the story including a big one at the end.
Gene Luen Yang is one of the most talented writers in comics today. Hopefully a new generation of writer’s will spring up influenced by his work and really go to town on creating new and better comics. Not only does Yang create a new world, develop the characters and teach a lesson, but he makes it convincing. Now the kids may not talk exactly like middle schoolers, but if you’ve heard middle schoolers talk then you should be thankful. They’re the new generation of “Sailors" if you ask me. Instead he makes their dialogue consistent and believable to the world and characters.
Also I know that I said you’ll learn from this comic. Don’t worry, you don’t have to and there’s not an abundance of lessons to learn. I don’t know if Yang has a teaching background at all, but he does a great job of boiling down the information so that it’s very easy and digestible.
Here’s something most people don’t know about me and my taste for art. If you use only one color/color hue for an entire book, you’ll win me over. I absolutely love it when used properly and Secret Coders uses it properly. Mike Holmes only uses black and white and green for the entire volume. I don’t know the significance of green, but it works for the book. He uses it consistently, but it’s never overpowering. Holmes character designs have an animated feel to them. He manages to illustrate several characters of different national origin. It was a very diverse book upon picking it up which is frankly just a good thing to have on the market.
Holmes also plays a huge part in the learning lessons of the book. His visuals are key to understanding everything. Especially the first lesson which you need to see alongside Hopper. I would argue that Holmes actually had a harder job having to keep the visuals interesting, push the narrative forward and take Yang’s already boiled down lesson and make it visually easy for anyone picking up the book. I imagine the two had quite the collaboration going for this story.
Secret Coders is one of the best books I’ve read all year. Frankly it’s been a disappointing year for comics, but this gives me some hope that the latter half of the year will really deliver. I don’t know when to expect the next chapter of this story, but I’m already looking forward to it. And what's really impressive to me is that I know this isn't particularly seeking adults to read it, but I really enjoyed every page of it. Kids will probably enjoy it more.
Lastly, if you have a kid, a relative or maybe you’re a teacher. Then I would definitely check this book out and give it to them. Not just because coding is a part of the world now, but because it’s a comic that teaches and does a heck of a job at it and that's pretty cool if you ask me.