Ever since the launch of the Book Bunnies blog, Sprinkles has been thinking about what she should post here as her first review. Finally she decided to share a review she had written about several books on Ada Lovelace for a different outlet. Below is a revised version of what first appeared as “Reading About Ada: Children’s Edition” in the Association for Women in Mathematics Newsletter (Volume 49 Number 1 (January-February 2019), pages 9-13). This is long and will be the only post for July 2019; the book bunnies will be back with new reviews in August 2019.
We’re living at a time of many opportunities for people who can code. Today children of privilege begin playing with computers as toddlers. Attempts at leveling the playing field can involve coding camps as well as more traditional STEM-focused enrichment activities. Yet the computer science and engineering workforce remains heavily male-dominated. So proponents of women in STEM grasp at any loose end they can find to help alleviate the dearth of female role models. This is why we’re seeing book after book written about Ada, the first woman who wrote a computer program. And she is not only the first woman who did that, but actually the first person ever. A neat win for the Girls Team!
I completely empathize with this desire to share Ada’s story with younger people. And more generally I’m always on the lookout for books that can open up worlds of opportunity for girls of all ages. Hence I appreciated the opportunity to review several recent books on Ada written for the under-ten age group. The first three books I read belong to special series of books intended to encourage children to learn more about scientists and innovators and their contributions:
Ada Lovelace by Virginia Loh-Hagan (my itty-bitty bio) (illustrated by Jeff Bane)
Ada Lovelace and Computer Algorithms by Ellen Labrecque (Women Innovators: 21st Century Junior Library)
Programming Pioneer Ada Lovelace by Valerie Bodden (STEM trailblazer BIOS)
Loh-Hagan’s book is for the youngest in the crowd. The book is narrated through Ada’s perspective and the plain Ada illustration on the cover appears throughout; there is also a range of images from Ada’s life. Though reading a sentence such as “I died in 1852” feels weird, the open-ended questions throughout try to connect the child reading the book (or being read to) to Ada’s story. Though the story is much simplified, perhaps to the extent of not being com- pletely accurate (Ada Lovelace didn’t “invent” the first computer program, she “wrote” it, and Charles Babbage didn’t “invent the computer” as his work didn’t connect with the actual historical development of computers), it is told in an age- appropriate way to inspire and intrigue.
Labrecque’s book presents itself in a similar vein. Printed in a very large font, it could be read out loud with a new reader, and the occasional prompts to the reader sprinkled throughout can make this reading session more fun and engaging. This book goes into more detail about Ada and her contributions, and the reader is offered a clearer idea of what her life’s work was about. Several color photos and images accompany the text and enrich the reading experience. A few follow-up resources and activities are suggested, and I could see an enthusiastic parent or summer camp instructor turning the book into a cool afternoon full of learning and fun.
At 28+ pages Bodden’s is a book one could (or should!) find in any school library. This hardcover chapter book would be a neat resource for elementary school students trying to learn about Ada and her contributions; it could also be a great story to share with that special shy niece interested in mathy stuff. Many images throughout bring Ada’s story to life. The section titled “Thinking Like a Man” openly brings up gender issues and could make a good conversation starter for pre-teens. This, I believe, is the most detailed and accurate account of Ada’s story for the under-ten crowd.
Next are larger-format storybook-style books on Ada. Each of these would be great to read to or together with a young child; their beautiful illustrations will add much joy to the experience.
Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer written and illustrated by Fiona Robinson
Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark (illustrated by April Chu)
Who Says Women Can’t Be Computer Programmers? The Story of Ada Lovelace by Tanya Lee Stone (illustrated by Marjorie Priceman)
Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer by Diane Stanley (illustrated by Jessie Hartland)
None of these goes beyond Bodden’s Programming Pioneer Ada Lovelace in terms of technical details, but the technical details that are included are dispensed in perfectly digestible amounts. This makes the books not only fun to read but also intellectually stimulating. Interestingly, they all seem to be fascinated by nine-year-old Ada’s efforts to design and construct a flying machine; this plays an important role in each of the four books. The sheer beauty of illustration in each book also makes these great gifts for young children and the adults who enjoy reading with them. The expert illustrations range from the realistic (in Wallmark and Chu’s Thinking Machine) to the whimsical (Stone and Priceman’s Who Says Women Can’t Be Computer Programmers?). Most play with the contrast of the poet’s imagination with the mathematician’s strict discipline, and all successfully combine the two in the end.
But what to do with that special little person who read several of these books and wants to know more about Ada? Here let me tell you one thing: Whatever you do, don’t jump into any random book about Ada with your youngster, without first reading it yourself (or skimming over my review of it in the next issue). Otherwise you just might find yourself, like I did, in some very awkward territory, where you need to either explain, or explain away, or simply skip through large portions of exposition, which go beyond PG-13. Yes, Ada’s life is inspiring to children, but it also contains a lot of messy bits for the adults.
Indeed, it saddens me to acknowledge that children only get to hear part of Ada’s story. Ada’s life is complex, and as you immediately discover when you dig into the juicy details, she certainly didn’t do everything right. She was ambitious and confident. She had vision and she had sass. She was also the person who wrote the very first computer program. But Ada is an ideal role model for more than just the above. Yes, she was brilliant. But she was also a failed genius, and this time, she is on our team. Except for her gender, Ada’s story resembles the stories of any of those wild geniuses appreciated not only for their achievements but also for their larger-than-life personalities. And how many such stories do we have with female protagonists? How many others like her can you count? A female genius, who was brimming with potential and yet was mostly misunderstood and unappreciated during her time? An extraordinary figure, one who saw farther than her peers, one who basically squandered her voluminous talents because she was just interested in way too many disparate things?
The standard simplified Ada story tells us that she was a genius who wrote the first computer program. A similarly simplified story could tell us alternatively that she ended up doing nothing impactful, that her work and that of Charles was not what led to today’s computers, so that overall, she was a failure. Another simplified story could badmouth her mothering, her wifely skills, and her “loose attitude” with other men and tell us a tale of immorality in the grandeur of Victorian England. (Valerie Aurora in her amazing talk explores these different stories about Ada and encourages us to accept the complexities of her life instead of trying to fit her into a straitjacket.)
The story most people would choose to tell their children is the first one. However, for those children ready to take on a more complex persona and engage with her fully, some grownup books might help. The one I’d recommend for people who might also enjoy reading along to learn some of the math Ada was engaged in is Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist by Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin, and Adrian Rice. The authors are historians of mathematics and computer science and have dug deep into the archives and brought us a mathematically rich and yet a most readable account of Ada.
But maybe you don’t want to go there. Then, why not expand your little ones’ horizons and introduce them to other amazing women? Here are three of my other favorites if you want a break from Ada:
Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe (illustrated by Barbara McClintock) – about Sophie Germain
The Girl with a Mind for Math: The Story of Raye Montague by Julia Finley Mosca (illustrated by Daniel Rieley) – about Raye Montague
Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker (illustrated by Dow Phumiruk) – about Katherine Johnson
And for neat collections of short bios, you will not go wrong with either of the two volumes of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo; if you’re especially rooting for math, don’t miss the second volume, with its portrayal of Maryam Mirzakhani.