â€œBack in the 1980s, the big question was: what are we going to do with these computers? We were empowered â€“ we had a ZX81 or a BBC Micro â€“ but would we just play games with them? People wanted to find out what the change was going to be, but we didnâ€™t know: we had no idea about the internet and things like that. Although apparently we predicted it in one of our books â€¦â€
When it comes to children and computer programming, Lisa Watts wrote the book. In fact, she wrote and edited a whole series of them in the early 1980s as a key member of the team at publisher Usborne.
The books â€“ from Introduction to Computer Programming and Machine Code for Beginners to Write Your Own Adventure Programs for your Microcomputer â€“ provided a generation of children with their first taste of coding. Many of them grew up to be professional software and game developers.
Nearly a quarter of a century on, Watts is now head of digital for Usborne, and is playing an advisory role as the publisher prepares to return to the topic with two books for the children of 2015: Lift-the-Flap Computers and Coding, and Coding for Beginners Using Scratch.
The memories of the original books remain fresh in her mind. â€œIâ€™d worked on some DIY books: bicycle maintenance, woodwork and electronics, which was soldering, making your own burglar alarm and stuff like that. Very fun, and hands-on. When the computer thing came, that was a natural progression for me within the company,â€ says Watts.
â€œWe had two ZX81s that we all took home periodically in turn, and I loved that feeling of plugging it into the television and putting my name or an X up on the screen. Which sounds trivial, but I remember that moment so clearly: my television did something that I told it to do.â€
At that time, books explaining how to program computers were â€œÂ£30 tomes written by computer scientists for other computer scientistsâ€ that were â€œunfathomableâ€ for non-experts, but provided the starting point for Usborneâ€™s illustrated books for children.
â€œThe computer science guys did not understand the things that the average person would need to know, so thatâ€™s what we picked up on in the books. We could interpret what the experts were saying, make it understandable for kids, and make it fun,â€ she says.
The original books in good condition are increasingly rare, although they do still pop up on eBay â€“ Watts has bought several to fill the gaps in her personal collection â€“ but in 2015 she is overseeing a project to turn them into PDFs to be made available as free downloads on the publisherâ€™s website.
The books may look of their time to modern eyes, but in the early 80s their design was as groundbreaking as their content, aided by the fact that they were in the early days of full-colour book printing.
â€œWe started with the graphic step-by-step look, and a rigid formula for captions which would be four lines. it was a very strong discipline: writing to length, getting each bit of text to match the picture, and learning that the picture could get across as much information as the text itself,â€ says Watts.
They also met a demand. â€œVery rapidly after the ZX81 you got the affordable Commodore 64, the BBC Micro, Atari and all that lot, which kids had in their bedrooms and didnâ€™t know what to do with,â€ she says.
â€œThere was instantly a very strong demand, and the books fulfilled that demand: they were written for kids, they were colourful, and they were attractive. They were affordable too:Â£1.95 to Â£2.25. And there wasnâ€™t anything like them at all.â€
Reading Usborneâ€™s new Lift-the-Flap book, itâ€™s notable how some things havenâ€™t changed â€“ the colourful robots making interjections for example â€“ while others have. The chunks of text are shorter, although the flaps format means the information is presented in a more layered way.
â€œThe lift-the-flap format is so good because you can get so much information onto the page. But itâ€™s layered information, and you can dig down into the information and find out more about it. The flaps are not just a novelty,â€ says Watts.
â€œThe old books had a lot more text, and I donâ€™t think it would work with modern children: itâ€™s a bit harder to keep them with a book now, perhaps. But there are plenty of practical things you can do: little activities embedded in the flaps like interpreting pixels and numbers to create pictures.â€
â€œI would say we use more methods to entice children into the information now. But I donâ€™t think the basic level of what theyâ€™re interested in and what they understand has changed.â€
In the early 80s, Usborneâ€™s books were filling a gap in the market: a growing number of children owned computers, but there were no programming books written for them. In 2015, the hole to be plugged may be slightly different.
In England, programming is now on the national curriculum for children as young as five years old, but there has been criticism that this change needs to be accompanied by more resources and support for teachers, who may be as new to coding as their pupils.
â€œI think itâ€™s very hard for teachers who havenâ€™t grown up with coding themselves, and have suddenly got to get their heads around it. But I also think itâ€™s just so exciting, this coding thing, because itâ€™s not just about learning to code,â€ says Watts.
â€œItâ€™s a whole attitude to learning, thinking and problem-solving, and thatâ€™s what I see as the importance â€“ especially with it starting so young. In that sense, I donâ€™t think teachers should feel threatened by it. What theyâ€™re doing is helping kids to think for themselves, and to think logically, step-by-step.
She is enthusiastic about Scratch, the visual programming environment being used by many schools. â€œItâ€™s so clear to use and so fun. I think a teacher could enjoy learning with their class.â€
Coding on the curriculum, as well as Usborneâ€™s new series of books, are aimed at boys and girls alike. But Watts hopes that computing and programming education wonâ€™t fall back into familiar gender patterns as those children get older.
â€œOne thing Iâ€™m very nervous about with the whole coding thing is that girls and boys are going to be doing it at a very young age, and enjoying it, but will the girls continue? Once they get to secondary school, will they get on to the more advanced programming?â€ she says.
â€œI hope so. I think it depends on what resources are there; what they see coding being used for in the outside world; the kind of projects theyâ€™re given; who the books are written by. And also whether the technology industry is such an unfriendly place.â€
Watts says she feels lucky to have worked in a female-dominated industry â€“ childrenâ€™s book publishing â€“ where sexism and harassment were not a daily worry in her job.
â€œThroughout my career Iâ€™ve worked in this area, and in the early days it just didnâ€™t occur to me. We were just doing stuff that was really fun, and seemed important and exciting,â€ she says.
â€œBut when I reflect on whatâ€™s happening now to women who are working in technology, with trolling and some of the sexism that goes on in different careers, itâ€™s just appalling really.â€
â€œItâ€™s mind-boggling how awful it is out there at some of these big technology companies, or if you put your head above the parapet on Twitter or something. Itâ€™s very off-putting.â€
Wattsâ€™ current role at Usborne is less about writing and editing, and more about plotting the companyâ€™s digital publishing strategy â€“ from websites and its â€œQuicklinksâ€ scheme directing children from its books to online resources, to the publisherâ€™s experiments with book-apps.
She still sees a vital role for printed books, though, while admitting that around the turn of the millennium, the company was â€“ like its peers â€“ worrying about the formatâ€™s future.
â€œPeople were saying â€˜Oh, I donâ€™t need books because I have the internetâ€™. But it very rapidly became apparent that the internet doesnâ€™t give you any context for your information. You can sort-of cherry-pick facts here, there, but you donâ€™t know if theyâ€™re right, and you donâ€™t know how reliable they are,â€ she says.
â€œItâ€™s still a mish-mash of different kinds of information, but the book provides the context and the setting. Itâ€™s got a beginning, a middle and an end. It gives you the whole picture of the information, but to back that up with resources from the internet is really powerful.â€
Preparing the PDFs of Usborneâ€™s original computing books has been a chance to look back. Watts is keen to deflect any personal praise for their impact, pointing both to the role of the teams that worked on them â€“ writers, illustrators, editors and computing experts â€“ and to their down-to-earth process.
â€œIt all seemed completely natural: it was just explaining things in the best possible way to kids, and discovering them yourself,â€ she says. â€œIt wasnâ€™t impenetrable. We just had to sit down, read a bit, and then work out how to present it to kids.â€