Alex (yakshaver) wrote,

Please help me Christmas-shop for my nieces

I spent the last half of November in Saskatchewan (roughly 52°20′ N, 106°40′ W), visiting my sister. And having a truly fantastic time — so much so that I didn't even find time to start any posts about the trip while I was there. I've been back five days, and I'm grinning ear-to-ear just thinking about it.

But I'm going to resist babbling about the whole trip right now because there's a part I want to highlight and ask my friends' advice about: Two of the greatest delights of this trip were meeting my nieces, D (15) and K (13). Both are mentally agile and very clearly enjoy exploring what their minds can do. And my immediate concern is what do I get them for Christmas?

(Those of you still within shouting distance of your own teens, I'd especially appreciate your thoughts.)

D is a writer, and nearly talked my ear off a outlining the fantasy/mystery/romance book (trilogy? series?) that's currently running riot in her imagination. So obviously, I want to give her books.

She's not as widely read as she could be, and entirely uninformed as to what the life of a writer might be like. And I know the perfect book to help on both those fronts: The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, by Neil Gaiman. That was decided the moment I mentioned him and it was clear she'd never even heard his name.

I also want to give her some fiction. And my initial thought is give her one of Gaiman's novels, if only because I'd feel a bit odd telling her Here's this collection of minor non-fiction, much of it about writing, by this fantastic fiction writer you've never heard of. But you're on your own to discover his fiction! But I'm totally out of my depth when I try to think which of his novels is appropriate to a 15-year-old girl who's lived a sheltered life in a socially-conservative Christian home. And I don't have time to re-read his entire oeuvre.

My first day there, I mentioned to the 13-year-old, K, that I'd heard she was into math. And the next thing I knew, she had me generating dozen-digit numbers for her to multiply by hand with an enthusiasm that reminded me very much of myself at about her age.1

I opened my laptop and started checking her in a Python interpreter. When her answer to one problem was off by a single digit in the middle of a 15-digit string, I started writing a quick script to step through the problem, and her eyes lit up. Soon enough she was playing around in the interpreter herself, trying arithmetic operations in various combinations to the point where I began wondering if I was going to have to explain floating-point to this kid who hasn't even seen single-variable algebra.

Her enthusiasm was totally delightful, and I want to cultivate it. One of my missions on this trip was to upgrade and configure remote administration on my sister's Mac. On which, it turned out, she was using < 5% of the available storage. So after watching K take to coding like a fish to water, I also created accounts for the whole family and made sure K understands the rudiments of the terminal. So I can certainly spend time with her remotely and help her find toys to play with. But I have no thoughts about what to give her for Christmas anywhere near as specific as I do for her sister.

Is there a good teach-yourself-Python book or online curriculum for teens?2 A book of fun math puzzles that might expand her horizons a bit beyond arithmetic? A (well-enough supervised for her parents to approve) online community for teens just discovering that they might be math geeks that I could maybe buy her a subscription to? If you found that you had a mathematically talented younger relative going to a lousy school without a lot of stimulation or any real peers, what would you want to give her?2

1Or rather, she reminded me of myself a couple of years younger: she's in eighth grade and they're multiplying fractions.

2Bonus points if it's for Python 3. (It makes no sense to me to start a novice off with Python 2 at this point.)

3Take a pass on this question if you're Salman Khan: I know Sal's answer, and have already turned K on to Khan Academy :^)

After fifteen years on LJ, I have joined the great exodus. It's lovely over here. Join me!
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