It doesn't happen every day that a book written by a Finn comes first in Amazon Japan's book sales rankings. Well it did for Linda Liukas, a Finnish programmer and illustrator, whose first book "Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding" translated into Japanese not only ranked second in all books sold on Amazon at one moment but also remained astoundingly on top of picture books category for one whole week in May this year.
"Hello Ruby" was one of a kind - a picture book on programming which didn't exist in the Japanese market before. And the fact that the Japanese Government announced its intentions on making programming compulsory in 2020 just around the time the book was published acted as a tailwind. Being translated into 19 languages in 15 countries, the Japanese edition of "Hello Ruby" is already in its third printing with a total sum of 20,000 copies (data at the end of July).
The Japanese publisher Shoeisha invited Liukas to teach programming at workshops for parents and children on July 30-31 in Tokyo and Fukuoka. The Embassy of Finland Press Section met with Liukas in the midst of her busy schedule, and had a chat over lunch.
Embassy: How were the workshops in Japan? You've also had your first Hello Ruby Summer School this June in Helsinki. What did you think of the kids?
Linda: Finnish kids were quick to start, figuring out things by themselves. As for Japanese kids, I got an impression that they wanted detailed instructions. But after these were given, it was creativity all over. After a few exercises they felt more comfortable, and it was amazing to see the pictures they made when I asked them to draw what's inside computers. I think their creativity is hidden somehow, and you need to encourage them more to express it. As an instructor, I had it easy- the Japanese kids behaved very well, and they had good concentration!
Embassy: How were you yourself as a child? Were you the type who loved numbers and code?
Linda: Not at all! I grew up in a mathematics family. My father was an engineer, and my little sister and brother also liked mathematics. Not me though, I always thought math was boring. But when I was 7 or 8, my father brought home a computer and said I can do anything with it, even though it was an expensive gadget you would probably have to treat carefully in other families. I think I deleted the OS several times and broke things here and there… but my father was always patient and tried to fix them with me.
Liukas believes that girls should also learn to code, and started the free "Rails Girls" workshops for women which are now held worldwide
When I was around 14, I had a crush on the then U.S. Presidential candidate Al Gore. I wanted to make a fan site for him, but back then Tumblr, Pinterest nor Facebook existed. So I learnt about HTML and CSS on my own. But still the jobs of programmers and engineers didn’t seem attractive. I had the image of sitting in front of the computer in the basement with smelly boys, secluded and without creativity. It took me more than 10 years to be interested in computers again.
Embassy: Programming is introduced to the Finnish compulsory education from this new school year. You were also involved as an advisor and instructor to schools and teachers. What did you think of this decision?
Linda: I think it was very brave for the Finnish Government! Including programming into the core curriculum would democratize knowledge. It wouldn’t be something only the rich families can afford; now everyone can have access. Code is the 21st century literacy. It's a tool for problem solving and expression, and our kids need to learn it as if they would be using crayons and paper. In Finland, most schools are public and equality is assured—schools would be a wonderful way to spread the knowledge of programming throughout society.
Embassy: The teachers might be anxious though, thinking they don't know anything about coding.
Linda: Some educators might be afraid, thinking they can't learn to teach programming. But they will soon realize that teaching computational thinking skills is very close to teaching logical thinking and reasoning skills, which they have been doing all along.
You know, programming is all about making a series of mistakes, and so you shouldn’t worry. That's how you learn. One way to do it is to pair up the kids in two in front of a computer, and tell them to teach each other. Usually the kids are much faster with programming and all these IT related things, so if one kid excels he or she can help others. You might ask what the role of the teacher is then—well, asking students questions. How do you do this? Why do you think that happened? And then try to guide the students when needed.
Embassy: Your profile says you are a programmer, illustrator, story teller…. So what exactly are you?
Liukas explains about her book "Hello Ruby" in a media interview held at the Embassy of Finland in Tokyo
Linda: Ooh, that's my favorite questions nowadays! You know, I don't like to limit and restrict myself with titles and such. I can be doing anything in the future, I can work at a big company if I want to, who knows? I've visited Japan already five times since last year. Do you know how it all started? I was asked to comment at a very business-like seminar in Finland what I would be doing in the near future, and I didn’t want to say anything boring or expected. So I said, "it would be wonderful if I could be a teacher at a kindergarten in Japan." The Press Counsellor at the Finnish Embassy in Tokyo heard about this and contacted me. See what open to possibilities brings? Whatever happens, I would like to keep being creative and exploring possibilities.
About programming education in Finland
Programming is included in the new core curriculum of 2016, which was announced in 2014. It is not made into a separate subject; most will be introduced in mathematics, but the teachers are encouraged to include it in all subjects. First to six grades in elementary schools will start this year, 7th grade in 2017, 8th in 2018 and 9th in 2019. First and second graders will learn how to follow and formulate step by step instructions, being introduced to "computational thinking" without touching one. Third to six graders will be provided with visual environment where they will use internet and software to do simple tasks. Seventh to ninth graders need to think more about algorithms and learn one programming language. There are many regional groups in Finland where teachers can take training courses to learn the basics of programming. Websites such as ("Code ABC" ) are available for online training as well.
Shoeisha "Hello Ruby" official website
Hello Ruby Summer School
Programming workshops held at the Finnish Embassy in April 2016 (in Japanese)
Linda Liukas event about Rails Girls at the Finnish Embassy in February 2015