secret12-year-old Hopper’s first day at creepy Stately Academy isn’t going well; the kids are hostile, classes are either hard or boring, and the courtyard and grounds are filled with weird-looking birds. At lunchtime, one of the birds sees Hopper’s earrings with the number 7 on them and opens a third eye, much to Hopper’s shock. Another student, Eni, sees this happening and instantly realizes that the birds are robots programmed to reflect numbers in binary form. He explains how this works to Hopper, and as they experiment with the birds, another secret is revealed: the combination to the mysterious locked tool shed. Inside the shed the kids find a programmable turtle robot, and their first forays into the world of coding—and into Stately Academy’s secrets—begin.

Hopper and Eni’s sleuthing and coding seems like the only bright spot in Hopper’s life. Mean kids at school and extracurricular disasters add to her stress, and the icing on the cake is tension at home: Hopper’s mom is way too involved with her life at school, and her dad isn’t with them. Because of this, Hopper’s enthusiasm for coding (a way to exercise control over something, even if it’s just a robot) and her willingness to lie and break rules in order to dig deeper into the school’s mysteries make a lot of sense.

The first two volumes of Secret Coders have periodic breaks in the narrative as Hopper and her friends are either learning how to code or puzzling over a coding problem. There are several prompts directed at the reader, encouraging him or her to solve the problem the characters are working on before proceeding with the story. The effect is a bit artificially instructional, but no more so than what readers would find in short Encyclopedia Brown-style mysteries, where the reader is encouraged to try and solve the mystery before turning the page and discovering how the main character solved it. Hopper and her world are brought to life enough so that readers can skip the prompts if they wish and still get an entertaining, well-told story.

The inking, design, and panel layout are all clean, clear, and easy on the eyes. The pale green and grayscale coloring choices puzzled me at first because I had expected full color, as is usual with big names writing for this age group. Then I realized that it’s a reference to old-style coding, where you would only see green text on a black background on the screen. I’m not sure if the kids will get it, but I certainly appreciated it once I realized what was happening.

Kids aged 8-12 (or even younger, if they can understand the binary/coding concepts in the books) who are into STEM, especially computers, should enjoy this series, but it also has a good deal of appeal for general mystery readers. Kids who have already read The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook by Eleanor Davis, but might not yet be ready for the darkness in Cloonan’s Gotham Academy series, should find the perfect reading material here.

Secret Coders, vol 1: Get With the Program
by Gene Luen Yang
Art by Mike Holmes
ISBN: 9781626722767
First Second, 2015
Publisher Age Rating:

Secret Coders, vol 2: Paths and Portals
by Gene Luen Yang
Art by Mike Holmes
ISBN: 9781626720763
First Second, 2016
Publisher Age Rating:

  • Kristen Lawson

    Past Reviewer

    Kristen Lawson is the Youth Services Department Manager at the Roselle Public Library in Roselle, IL. She has worked with children and teens in public libraries since graduating with her MLS from UIUC in 2006. Now she is working on making more space for kids’ graphic novels, in addition to other duties that fall under “making the library awesome.” Though very picky about movies and music, she has a wide range of reading interests and is constantly on a mission to read all the things.

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