The books from my Bill Gates buying spree have arrived and I’m about halfway through Jimmy Carter’s A Full Life. (It’s completely charming BTW.) In the first chapter he talks about receiving a genealogical study of the Carter side of his family from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and writes, “After leaving the White House I bought my first computer and entered the Mormon research data …”.
Ha! Jimmy Carter—still one of five living US past presidents—didn’t own a computer while in White House! He left the White House in 1981, just 36 years ago; how fast and how far we’ve come. Reading that left me thinking about Ada Lovelace, and this picture book about her life.
Ada is known as the first computer programmer as a result of a paper she published with Charles Babbage—he was the official author, but the footnotes were credited to her. Well, her initials were on them anyway: 'She was afraid her work wouldn’t be taken seriously if people knew it was written by a woman.'
Her life is captivatingly told, from her early years as a child fascinated with flying, to her marriage, her friendships that stimulated her mind and gave her room to grow, her work with Babbage and the publication of their paper.
Ada becomes a full and interesting character in its pages—she's a little girl with flights of fancy grounded in science as she imagines how to make wings for herself.
But she's also a child in the middle of family drama, a girl living on the cusp of change as the Industrial Revolution happens around her.
And she's a woman constrained by her position and time, a woman with a desire to talk about ‘important things: astronomy and politics, literature and art, and the latest engineering marvels.’
Ada is, in short, a whole person, and entirely relatable and aspirational for children and adults alike.
This is quite a long picture book—great for older readers but for much younger ones I’d try breaking it into sections. Perhaps just read the first few pages about Ada’s childhood and leave the rest for later. (There’s lots to learn for most adults in these pages too, so definitely read the rest yourself!)
4 of the many reasons to love Ada Lovelace Poet of Science:
The illustrations do a wonderful job of blending nostalgia with a thoroughly modern sensibility.
There’s a beautiful naiveté to the pictures coupled with a touch of whimsy and gorgeously expressive faces—they connect Ada’s 19th century life with the lives of modern readers.
It’s easy to read the book as a story.
There’s a whole lot of history and some tricky mathematical concepts and ideas to grapple with after reading, but the writing allows the book to be read as a narrative, making it ideal bedtime fodder.
It delivers a huge bonus for a short time spent reading an enjoyable story—it helps us to think about where we are and where we can go.
The ubiquity of computers can result in an unconscious lack of awareness about their complexities. That matters, because when we assume that an aspect of life is inevitable and omnipresent, we can miss opportunities to question—and questions are where change and progress begin. So knowing about the people and processes at the beginning of the computer revolution can blow out some of the mind cobwebs that we all gather from an early age.
It speaks to history with fidelity and flair.
A sense of trustworthiness, a feeling of facts laid out without embellishment and a sense of wonder—the promise that life is full of opportunities and surprises—captivates and motivates young readers.
As you've probably guessed, I have a large and ever growing collection of picture books about little-known women who changed the world (usually without due credit). Ada Lovelace Poet of Science is one of my favourites, it hits all the marks:
The artwork is beautiful enough to stand alone—I’d look at and ponder the art even without the story.
It’s an important story, told with a happy cadence and without guile or resentment.
And it speaks to the whole person. Ada is a rounded character with family, ideas, thought, successes and difficulties. The book is faithful to history but, most of all, it tells the story without lecturing—reading like any other 'best picture book'. My favourite line: