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The debut author discusses her middle-grade novel in verse as well as STEAM education, sexism in the tech industry, and her intersectional loves of code, music, and poetry.
“A lot of my energy in my personal life is spent trying to verbalize complicated feelings about difficult subjects, so if a kid reads Emmy and develops a love for language, that’s amazing. Whether that language takes the form of code, music, poetry, or something else entirely, language is language, communication is communication, and stories are stories.”
Emmy in the Key of Code, Aimee Lucido’s debut novel, is about a sixth-grade girl who accidentally finds herself in a computer science elective. Thanks to a great teacher, she starts learning code and, to her surprise, discovers that she’s pretty good at it. Recently we had the chance to talk to Lucido about her first outing as a novelist.
MCBROOM: In Emmy in the Key of Code, you hit all sorts of STEAM sweet spots: coding, computer science, music, poetry, and hands-on creative problem-solving. You also introduce us to Emmy, a believable, relatable heroine. Did you have such an ambitious project in mind when you first started?LUCIDO: The idea for Emmy in the Key of Code came about while reading Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Red Pencil (2014). I was at the gym, on the elliptical, distracting myself from exercise by reading this beautiful novel in verse that has nothing at all to do with computer science, when I realized how much Andrea’s poetic conventions resembled those of a coding language called Python—colons, newlines, tabs, spaces—and all at once, it hit me how similar poetry was to code. Both use language to encapsulate an idea, both attach meaning to punctuation and white space, and while they can be intimidating to a reader, code and poetry can both be very simple and beautiful once a reader taps into a certain mindset.
The crux of the idea for Emmy, which was there from the beginning, was to play with the similarities between code and poetry. There’s an implicit music to each. I wanted to bring that out, but Emmy herself evolved out of an interrogation of the complicated relationship between my software engineering background and my love of the arts. Are they as different as people seem to think? Or can they blend together like melody and harmony?
MCBROOM: In a previous interview with Curiosity Quills Press, you said, “Computer science should be taught in schools as early as possible in the same way that math and reading should be taught in schools as early as possible.” This sentiment is shared by school librarians everywhere! Do you see the current emphasis on STEM education helping accomplish this? How can educators do a better job of integrating computer skills into the school day and standard subjects?LUCIDO: I absolutely love how much more prevalent computer science education is now than it was when I was in school, particularly our emphasis on technical problem-solving. Kids are constantly asked what they want to be when they grow up, but if computer science isn’t a part of their lives when they first start asking themselves that question, they’re never going to see it as a part of their future. So, the earlier we can introduce kids to computer science the better.
That being said, something I find myself considering more and more is how we often don’t see the interplay between STEM subjects and art subjects until we leave schooling behind. It wasn’t until I was in the workforce at a technical job that I found myself using my writing skills more than ever. And it wasn’t until I was writing Emmy in the Key of Code that I realized what a disservice we do to our kids by pretending that computer science, math, art, history, or anything else exists in a silo. Imagine the doors we could open for a kid who loves STEM, if we explored how it appears in everything from music to history to basketball!
MCBROOM: Your novel is written in verse, which is especially effective when showing Emmy’s seesawing emotions. You even seamlessly integrate lines of code into the narrative. How did you come to use this format?LUCIDO: Emmy came to me as a novel in verse. Verse was the only format that could showcase the lyrical nature of code, and to me, that was the heart of the story. At the time, however, the fact that this book had to be told in verse was a real shame because I’d barely even written poetry before, much less a whole novel told in that format.
Don’t get me wrong; I had always loved poetry, and I had spent a lot of time playing with picture-book verse as well as song structure, but up until that point, poetry was play. Almost a dare. A challenge to tell the story I wanted to tell as a limerick, a double dactyl, a villanelle. I wouldn’t have even known that novels in verse were a thing had it not been for my MFA program at Hamline University. I remember the first time I read The Crossover (2014). I had assumed it was just a book of poetry, like Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974). It wasn’t until a full quarter of the way through the book, when I began to notice the same characters being named over and over, that I realized it was telling a single story!
But I’m a firm believer that form is dictated by content, and if Emmy was going to be what I wanted it to be, it had to be written in verse. So, I read. I read novels in verse, books of poetry, and picture books, and I even got into watching slam poetry and freestyle rap videos on YouTube. If any of my poems work as read-alouds, I owe it all to Sarah Kay, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
MCBROOM: You do include some whimsical and witty rhymed excerpts of your own. LUCIDO: And I would love it if children walked away from Emmy in the Key of Code with a love of poetry and wordplay. Shel Silverstein was one of my favorite authors as a kid, and I used to memorize his poems just for fun (“‘I cannot go to school today,’ / Said little Peggy Ann McKay”). I spend a lot of my time now, as an adult, playing with words, not just in book form but also in song form, crossword form, and sometimes even tweet form.
A lot of my energy in my personal life is spent trying to verbalize complicated feelings about difficult subjects, so if a kid reads Emmy and develops a love for language, that’s amazing. Whether that language takes the form of code, music, poetry, or something else entirely, language is language, communication is communication, and stories are stories.
MCBROOM: Music is another strong component in Emmy’s story. Musical terms are woven in (I’m thinking of your description of homeroom on the first day of school: “Quartets / trios / even a few duets here and there. / Even the teacher runs around / in a stunning rendition of / ‘Flight of the Bumblebee.’” Do you have a musical background yourself? LUCIDO: I do have a musical background! I inherited my father’s love of listening to music (as well as the obsessive need to be able to identify songs when they come on the radio), and I remember being six years old and begging my mom for piano lessons. I was an overly active first-grader, so my mom didn’t love the idea of having yet another class to drive me to every week, but I was persistent, and eventually I started playing piano.
And I think, to everyone’s surprise, I was actually pretty good at it! By high school I was playing in competitions, often even winning, but as I got older, I realized that practicing piano by myself an hour a day was a lonely exercise. I got involved in various choirs—which I wasn’t exactly bad at, but I was nowhere near as innately talented at singing as I was at playing piano—but I loved it because it turned music into a social experience.
In college, I sang in choirs and a cappella groups. Now, my biggest musical endeavor is my musical improv team. We are a group that gets together once a week to make up silly Broadway-style songs off the top of our heads, and it’s such a wonderful group, because it reminds me that music is meant to be fun and not a skill to be mastered.
Music plays a big role in a lot of my stories, and I think that’s because it has always been such a huge part of my life and vocabulary. As I was evolving Emmy’s voice, I wanted to capture the fact that music isn’t something she can escape. She might believe she has quit being a musician, but being a musician isn’t something you can take on and off like a Halloween costume. If you’re a musician, you’re a musician, no matter what.
MCBROOM: In the novel, once she starts her computer science class, Emmy encounters Francis, a boy who resents her, Abigail, and Ms. Delaney simply because they’re female. Did you experience such discrimination in the tech world? Do you anticipate that this is going to be a problem for girls who go into IT careers?LUCIDO: I really struggled with Francis’ character, because while I have experienced discrimination in the world of tech, for me it’s rarely been as explicit as it is in Emmy in the Key of Code. Sexism, as well as racism, ageism, homophobia, or anything else, doesn’t always show up as someone unsubtly saying, “I don’t think you’re good at this job because of who you are.” In my experience, sexism tended to appear more in the looks of surprise on my coworkers’ faces when they saw me, the tall, blonde woman that was supposed to be their new Android engineer. Sexism appeared in hearing that I was passed over for a promotion that I thought was in the bag, because someone on my feedback loop said I “wasn’t technical enough.” Sexism appeared when I was declared “not a culture fit” for a company I was applying for or when I was told to focus my time more on writing code and less on fighting for diversity numbers at a company that needed my fight far more than my Java. Sexism appeared in the fact that I never worked for a woman CEO or a woman director or a woman VP. In my entire six years in tech, I had more managers named Dave (three) than managers that were women (one).
The other reason I struggled with Francis’ character is that I didn’t want to scare girls away from the world of tech. Sexism exists in every field, and while it might be fair to say that tech is more sexist than some, I worry that the emphasis on the negative deters girls from joining the industry. Tech needs women. Our world is full of technology that was made with one type of person in mind, and as a result, a lot of technology doesn’t work for anybody else. Face detection software doesn’t work on Black faces, online service sign-up forms still ask us to state whether we are male or female, and the vast majority of iPhone apps are woefully inaccessible to the blind and Deaf communities.
So, yes: sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and every other form of bias exists in the world of tech. There’s no doubt about that. But for every Francis I’ve met, I’ve met 10 Ms. Delaneys and about a thousand Emmys. And I think it’s important to note that, by the end of Emmy in the Key of Code, not only has Francis started to turn over a new leaf but, even more important, he’s become irrelevant. The book ends on Emmy, a girl who loves music, loves code, and has found where she belongs.
MCBROOM: Ms. Delaney, Emmy’s computer science teacher, is a strong role model and determined advocate for getting girls into coding. Did you ever encounter such a mentor in your career?LUCIDO: I’ve had so many incredible mentors in both my writing career and my tech career. In fact, Emmy in the Key of Code is dedicated to two of them: Baker Franke and Laura Ruby. Baker Franke was my computer science teacher during my junior and senior years of high school. He’s always been passionate about improving computer science education as well as advocating for women in STEM. I can safely say there’s no way I would be where I am today without him.
Similarly, Laura Ruby is a teacher at Hamline University’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and she was my advisor when I started working on Emmy. Not only is Laura an incredible writer, she’s also a strong advocate for social justice. Because of this, about halfway through writing my first draft of Emmy, I started to picture Ms. Delaney as a combination of Laura and Ms. Frizzle—two of my favorite teachers of all time.
MCBROOM: The book ends without resolving Ms. Delaney’s fate. Why did you choose an ambiguous ending?LUCIDO: The ending wasn’t always ambiguous. In fact, I don’t think there was a version of the outcome that I didn’t write at one point or another. But everything concrete that I wrote felt off. And when it came down to it, I think the problem was that it took the focus off of Emmy and her own internal journey. The whole book is about Emmy coming to terms with the fact that the world isn’t Boolean. Forgiveness isn’t Boolean, friendship isn’t Boolean, and sometimes life isn’t Boolean. We exist in the in-betweens, and that’s what makes life so beautiful and terrifying.
Furthermore, I felt that stating Ms. Delaney’s fate sent the message that Emmy’s emotional state was entirely determinant on the outcome of external events, which doesn’t ring true to Emmy’s character arc. At the end of the book, Emmy has found her place in the world no matter what happens. And while, of course, everyone hopes that she’s OK, I tried to reflect Emmy’s newfound optimism in her feelings about that email that pops into her inbox. We don’t know if it’s from Ms. Delaney, but Emmy thinks it is, and that’s what matters.
MCBROOM: You never talk down to your readers. Emmy’s observations (both internal and external) can be very sophisticated at times, while at others, she voices very relatable feelings. How did you find Emmy’s voice?LUCIDO: When I start writing a book, I have a hard time moving away from the beginning. I write in circles, editing the same lines over and over again before moving on to a new scene and then quickly going back to the beginning. Common writerly wisdom tends to tell writers to push their way through the first draft, because it’s easier to revise a badly written full novel than a perfectly written first chapter, but no matter how much I try, I can’t move away from the beginning of my books until they feel right.
It took me a while to realize that I do this because I’m searching for voice. How could I know what’s going to happen to my characters before I know who they are? But once I know them, the plot flows easily, and so I spend months on the first chapters as my characters become fully fleshed people.
Emmy’s voice evolved over time, but once I figured out her relationship to music, she really started to speak to me. What does it feel like to love music so much that you can’t help but think in musical metaphors while at the same time worrying that it doesn’t love you back? That central question fueled Emmy’s voice, character, and story.
MCBROOM: You also very effectively capture the ebb and flow of middle-school conversation and the nuances of the middle-school social scene. Have you spent much time with this particular demographic?LUCIDO: I haven’t spent significant time with middle-schoolers since I was a middle-schooler, but middle school was such a hard time for me that I sometimes feel like I am in a state of arrested development. Not that my middle-school experience was necessarily any harder than anyone else’s, but I remember reading into every comment, every sideways glance, every joke that wasn’t really a joke, and I spent so much time thinking about these tinged interactions that I guess I never really got over it. And those feelings resonated so strongly with me in middle school that they seep into my writing now, whether I want them to or not.
MCBROOM: Did you always plan on writing Emmy for a middle-school audience?LUCIDO: It was always going to be a middle-grade book, but it took me about four attempts at writing other novels to realize how naturally my voice fell into that age range. Before I started seriously attempting to write for kids, I had only ever read young adult books, and so when I was first learning the landscape of the industry, I tried to write young adult. But my characters always acted young, and so it took a few years and a few trunked novels, but I think I found my sweet spot!
MCBROOM: Your book is multilayered, with lots of directions to explore. What do you hope young readers take away with them?LUCIDO: Emmy in the Key of Code is a story first and foremost, so if nothing else, I hope that young readers enjoy the book. But beyond that, I hope that they understand that computer code doesn’t need to be a scary thing, and I hope that they see how sometimes you try to leave something you love behind only to realize you can’t escape it. I hope readers notice Emmy rediscovering music—something she thought she was “bad” at—through a lens that she never would have expected: computer code. I hope young readers realize that there are intersections between the subjects we learn in school. Most important, I hope they learn that or can always mean and. They can be an astronaut and a horseback rider, a software engineer and a writer, a coder and a musician.
Kathleen McBroom is the School Library Media Practicum Coordinator for the Wayne State University School of Information Science.
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