Carlos Bueno’s new book, Lauren Ipsum: A Story About Computer Science and Other Improbable Things, is another example of how to create a fun and informative books for kids that is both entertaining and engaging. While not without some faults, it does a great job of using character and story to convey serious ideas about computer science in an accessible way.
The premise of the story is that our plucky heroine, Lauren Ipsum, or Laurie, gets lost in the forest after an argument with her parents and somehow finds her way into the mysterious alternate reality Userland. In order to find her way home, she has to solve a bunch of puzzles and figure out a path back to her own city. She encounters a wide range of quirky characters and situations, all of which the author uses to explain real concepts in computer science. And not the kind of computer science that’s associated with programming or websites or operating systems and gadgets. Bueno definitely aims at explaining the deeper underlying concepts of computing, like travelling salesmen, problem solving, upper and lower bounds, recursion, networks, binary searching, algorithms, brute force, heuristics, Mandelbroccoli and all the rest. One feature I really appreciated is a Field Guide/Glossary at the end which Bueno is more explicit about what concepts he’s trying to get across in each chapter as well as providing a more detailed explanation.
And Bueno mostly does a great job of using the framing narrative to elucidate the concepts largely by making Laurie jump through a bunch of plot hoops.
And there’s fun stuff here too for the grown up computer scientist who’ll catch a lot of jokey references to jargon and personalities in computing, such as the towers of Hanoi, the source of Lauren’s name and so many others.
Above I did say mostly and there are a few weaknesses in the book. At times I felt Bueno was trying to cram too many concepts into too short a space, seeming to speed up as the book went along. The integration of Lauren’s story with the computing content started out extremely well but the plot and characterization seemed to take more of a backseat to the concepts with each passing chapter. Probably the characterization and plot momentum needed to stay stronger — the spoonful of sugar to help the computing conceptual medicine go down, as I’ve said so many times in reference to science-themed children’s books and graphic novels. Miran Lipovaca’s illustrations are wonderful, but they could have been used more to illustrate how the plot points related to the concepts. Which leads me to believe that maybe a graphic novel treatment of this material would also have been an interesting project. Who knows, maybe that’s the next step!
But those are minor quibbles. Overall I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it as a gift for any child in your life, especially the girls. It’s probably most appropriate for kids starting at about 8 or 9, but many both younger and older will find much to enjoy. Any school library should definitely get this book as should education libraries at post-secondary institutions. The book is deep and serious “under the hood” so just about anyone of any age that wants to learn about computing will find much to enjoy and learn here. Perhaps some further reading at the end would have been appreciated.
Bueno, Carlos. Lauren Ipsum: A Story About Computer Science and Other Improbable Things. San Francisco: No Starch, 2015. 192pp. ISBN: 978-1-59327-574-7