HOW TO CODE A SANDCASTLE, interview with Josh Funk + a giveaway!

When I saw the cover/title of Josh Funk’s HOW TO CODE A SANDCASTLE, I knew I had to get a look. Because I’m a coder? No. Because I’m so not. And, guess what? After reading this one little powerhouse book, I could actually understand coding, albeit in a very basic way. An impressive feat!

What I love about this book is that it takes a complicated concept and makes it comprehendible (and fun!) for kids (and adults with no clue). Text and art complement one another to create a wholly cohesive and enjoyable book that will fascinate kids. The book is part of Penguin’s new Girls Who Code series, which means we can look forward to more coding books to inspire and educate. Yay!

So of course I wanted to ask Josh about the book’s creation. Luckily, I have a platform for that.

JE:  Welcome to Picture Book Builders, Josh! I love the simple, step-by-step breakdown of coding in your HOW TO CODE A SANDCASTLE. Makes a complicated concept seem straightforward and achievable. What triggered this project?

JF:  Thanks for inviting me, Jill! I’m a software engineer. I’ve been working in industry for almost 20 years. About seven years ago, I started writing picture books. But it wasn’t until 2015 that it occurred to me to try and connect my two passions.

I’ve never written nonfiction, and frankly, HOW TO CODE A SANDCASTLE isn’t nonfiction – it’s “Informational Fiction.” As far as I know, we don’t yet live in a world where we can direct robots to build sandcastles with step-by-step instructions.

When I finally had a story that worked in the picture book format, my agent and I began submitting it to editors, one of whom was my editor at Viking/Penguin that previously published DEAR DRAGON. While it wasn’t public knowledge at the time, Penguin and Girls Who Code had entered into a partnership to publish several children’s books about coding (chapter books, activity books, nonfiction). When they saw HOW TO CODE A SANDCASTLE, they connected the dots and invited me to join the program. And of course I was thrilled to do so.

Artwork © Sara Palacios

JE:  Readers, artwork above is the spread showing MC Pearl’s failed attempts at building a sandcastle, prompting her to code a robot to do it. Josh, do you do a lot of coding?

JF:  Pretty much every day. The first time I wrote code was in high school when I learned how to access the back end of some text-based video games on my TI-85 graphing calculator (which I think was some version of the language BASIC). But I didn’t really start coding until college when my first course was taught in the language Pascal (like the robot in HOW TO CODE A SANDCASTLE).

Since then I’ve written mostly in C/C++ and occasionally some Python, Java, and a few other languages. For what it’s worth, I’ve never learned PERL (Practical Extraction and Reporting Language) – which is where Pearl, the main character in the book, gets her name (along with it also being my grandmother’s name).

At this point, I’m pretty sure your readers are bored. So I’ll try to go back to talking about picture books.

In HOW TO CODE A SANDCASTLE, I bring up a few basic coding concepts: Sequences, Loops, and If-Then-Elses (more commonly called Conditionals, which I thought that was a big word for the picture book crowd). But I kept the book coding-language agnostic. You see, just like the area of a circle will always be Pi times the radius squared, every coding language will need sequences, loops, and conditionals. They may call them by a different name (e.g. a loop could be called a ‘repeat’), but every language will have each of those concepts.

Uh-oh. Are you still awake?

JE:  🙂  Did you work closely with Girls Who Code founder, Reshma Saujani?

JF:  I’m very grateful that Reshma wrote a beautiful forward to accompany the book and welcomed me graciously as part of the Girls Who Code team.

But the truth is, I wrote the book on my own and Girls Who Code didn’t come into the equation until the very end. The Girls Who Code team did review the manuscript for correctness and to make sure everything aligned with their teaching principles (it did), but from my perspective it was just like any other picture book submission, working with an editor, and so on.

JE:  A great example of serendipity, Josh. The art in this book plays a HUGE role in making clear the whole concept. Art below shows what happens when Pearl instructs robot Pascal to “find a flat spot away from all dogs and Frisbees.” and realizes she needs to be more specific, as they cannot build in the water or the parking lot. Did you have any input on the illustrations, Josh?

JF:  I certainly had some input, especially regarding the visual gags of the earlier sandcastle mishaps (like Ada Puglace’s moat), as well as when Pascal misinterprets Pearl’s instructions.

But how the coding concepts are visualized – like Pascal’s repeated actions, putting the actual text in a loop around floaties and moats, and all of the multiple different font types and designs (I think there are at least four types of fonts!)? I didn’t really think about it. That was all Sara and the art team. I’m sure it was a real challenge to figure out how to get it all down on the page, but they managed to do it brilliantly!

And Sara Palacios’ illustrations are perfect! I couldn’t have hoped for anything better.

Artwork ©2018 Sara Palacios

JE:  I agree. She brings the story to life beautifully! On the above page, Pearl has asked Pascal to bring things with which to decorate their sandcastle – but has forgotten to specify that those should be SMALL things. What was the most difficult part of the writing process, Josh?

JF:  Figuring out how to boil down what could be a very complicated topic into something digestible by a picture book audience – all while making a picture book that would still be entertaining even to those who have absolutely no interest in coding. Ideally, you can look at HOW TO CODE A SANDCASTLE as a silly story about a girl and her robot who solve problems, and coding just happens to be the mechanism by which they solve them.

My very first attempt at writing a picture book about coding was about a sister and brother who were sucked into a computer and it became sort of a mash-up of The Wizard of Oz and Tron. They landed in a digital world where they first met a Pointer named Arnie (I don’t know why his name was Arnie) and eventually traveled through a world of loops and trees and other coding termInology before culminating with a faceoff against a pair of witches named Iffie and Elsie … and WOW it was complicated. It was hard enough to understand the massive world I’d built, let alone learn any coding concepts.

Then I thought about using Sir Cumference and the First Round Table as a mentor text. Author Cindy Neuschwander used a child-friendly, familiar world (King Arthur’s England) to explore a relatively complex concept (geometry). Since King Arthur was taken, and I’d already started building a Fairy Tale world (with IT’S NOT JACK AND THE BEANSTALK and more), I considered Greek Mythology, but quickly realized there’s a reason there are no picture books about Greek myths (lots of adult romance and violence).

Next, I tried placing a pair of siblings in a familiar environment – an amusement park. I was getting closer, but the feedback I received from critique partners was that it was still too complicated. So my friend/critique partner/author/social media expert/personal life coach Jess Keating suggested I try approaching it in a ‘How To’ book and have the characters make or build something. And that’s when it all finally clicked.

Note that not all of that early work was wasted – book #2 in the “How to Code” series, coming out in the Fall of 2019, will be called HOW TO CODE A ROLLERCOASTER, and I was able to reuse parts of the amusement park draft, but this time with Pearl and her robot Pascal as the main characters as they focus on the coding concept of variables.

And maybe someday I’ll write a middle grade Oz/Tron mash-up (look out, Iffie and Elsie!).

JE:  I wouldn’t be surprised! Hey, this has been really inspiring, Josh. I know we all love hearing how an author keeps at a story until finding the perfect way to convey it. Thanks for stopping by!

JF:  Thanks so much for inviting me, Jill! I expect to see a Picture Book Builders app some time in the next few months!

JE:  Good luck with that, Josh.  😉   Meanwhile, HOW TO CODE A SANDCASTLE releases next Tuesday, so go find it, everybody! Josh has also generously offered to send a book to one lucky winner. All you need do is leave him a comment below. Good luck!

Bio: Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as books – such as the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series (including The Case of the Stinky Stench and the upcoming Mission Defrostable), ​It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk, Dear Dragon, Pirasaurs!, and the forthcoming Albie Newton, How to Code a Sandcastle (in conjunction with Girls Who Code), Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude (in conjunction with the New York Public Library), It’s Not Hansel and Gretel, and more coming soon!

Josh lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes manuscripts. He’s a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences. You can learn more about Josh here, on his website and follow him on Twitter at @joshfunkbooks.————————

WINNER alert!!!
The lucky winner of Kathy Doherty’s DON’T FEED THE BEAR! is Janet Metzger. Janet, if you could please contact me, I’ll make sure you get your copy. Thanks for entering, everybody!
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Jill Esbaum

Jill Esbaum has been picture book crazy since her 3 kids were little, and especially so after her first was published in 2004 (Stink Soup). Recent titles: Bird Girl - Gene Stratton-Porter Shares Her Love of Nature With the World, Parrotfish Has a Superpower, Stinkbird Has a Superpower, Sea Turtle Swims, Kangaroo Hops, Jack Knight's Brave Flight, We Love Babies!, Where'd My Jo Go?, Frog Boots, How to Grow a Dinosaur, Frankenbunny, If a T. Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party, Elwood Bigfoot– Wanted: Birdie Friends!, Teeny Tiny Toady, I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!, and more. Coming in 2025: Polecat Has a Superpower!, It's Corn-Picking Time!, Giraffe Runs. She's also the author of many nonfiction books for young readers, as well as an early graphic reader series, Thunder & Cluck. Learn more at


  1. michelle gajda

    My students love Josh’s books! We are all big fans! “How To Code a Sandcastle” is the only Funk book we don’t have! Thanks for the opportunity to win it!

  2. I enjoyed this interview about your new book, Josh. I taught coding to my 1st graders a few years ago via Maybe I’ll try a little with my kindergartners next year.

  3. Oh, how fun, Josh. and Sara’s illustrations are spot on. Thank-Q you for sharing.

  4. OK, so this might be the book that finally helps me understand coding. I love the beach and picture books, so I’m definitely checking it out! Thanks for this interview, Jill and Josh.

  5. Since the day I heard this title, I’ve been looking forward to the backstory of how the book came to be! And, it’s a good one. Congrats, Josh and thanks, PB Builders.

  6. Wendy Greenley

    Great interview, Josh (I didn’t nod off once!) It’s fascinating how book ideas go through their evolution. And it’s a killer title.

  7. love the term ‘informational fiction’ & the process of shedding (saving for later) the layers to get to a story with NF underpinnings of key concepts

    i do want to meet Iffie and Elsie someday!

  8. Fantastic interview–thanks you two!! Josh, I loved hearing about all the different approaches you tried before finding the right one–and how sometimes the discards wind up being useful later on. Congratulations!

  9. I can’t wait to read this book! I’ve been waiting for it. Thank you for sharing your backstory – so much fun – and so much work!

  10. Sounds like a great book for kids (and me because I am clueless when it comes to code).

    Congrats on your new book!

  11. Jill, I’m so excited to be the winner of “Don’t Feed the Bear!”. Our library copy has made it to processing – soon our patrons will love it too! Next I’ll be ordering Josh’s coding book and I’ll be first in line to read it. Continued thanks for this great site.

  12. Sequences, loops, and conditionals, oh my! I love how the characters’ names are coding languages, how you have combined your passions, Josh, and how this is part of a Girls Who Code series! Sara’s illustrations are wonderful!

  13. Very interesting how the story came to be. Thanks for a fun interview. Can’t wait to read the book!

  14. Terrific interview, Jill and Josh. Coding is like language learning- start young! Kids absorb and apply and expand the concepts and relationships so much more fluently than adults do. Thanks for this wonderful addition to the Girls WhoCode series and to your amazing personal catalog.

  15. I always LOVE the story behind the story. Thanks for sharing! Always happy to add another Funk-y book to my library 🙂

  16. Wow! Today’s kids will eat this up! If Josh ever writes a picture book that will explain computer technology to this old writer, who can’t even navigate her own website, I want to be first in line.

  17. This book would be perfect for my 13 year old daughter entering STEM high school next year to use while mentoring younger students who are interested on the program.

  18. Kathleen Mazurowski

    Can’t wait to read this cute story. I saw the title and thought, no it really can’t be about computer coding? Well, it is and I need to read it!

  19. Angie Quantrell

    Oh, I am so so lost about coding! I think I better read this book to see if an old dog can learn new codes, er, tricks! Kids will love this (and they probably already can code!). Thanks for the great interview! Congratulations!

  20. Great interview – can’t wait to read your book!

  21. Thanks for sharing your story behind the story – so interesting! Congrats on another great book -I can’t wait to get my hands on it! 🙂

  22. This is so great…can’t wait to read it!

  23. Lindsay Hanson Metcalf

    This book looks perfect for my coding-obsessed kids. Can’t wait to read!

  24. This would make a great addition to class library! Love all Josh Funk books!!!

  25. Terrific interview, Jill! I can’t wait to grab a copy of that book. And Josh, you’ve made me want to learn coding!

  26. I am an elementary school librarians and would love this book for my library!

  27. Love LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST! Happy to find out about the other books in the series, and will be ordering those as well.

  28. Great interview Josh and Jill! The book sounds wonderful and the illustrations are great – I love that cover. Congrats!

  29. Danielle Hammelef

    I love Josh’s books and read them as mentor texts for my own writing. thanks for the interview and chance to win a copy to read over and over again.

  30. Can’t wait to read this one!

  31. Thanks for sharing the history of Josh’s new book. Words like “coding” intimidate me 😀 Maybe his PB will alleviate my anxiety and I’ll actually understand a little about computer programming! Can’t wait to read it!

  32. Colleen Kelley

    I liked reading about both this hilarious way to approach coding and the circuitous route you took to get there. It gives me faith that the many manuscripts abandoned along the way may eventually result not only in something that works but also in material for future books.

  33. Kristin Crouch

    I’m hoping to start my fifth graders coding, but I’m an adult with no clue how (like yourself). I’m excited for this book and thankful for the chance to be able to have it in my classroom library! Thank you!

  34. Thank you, Josh, for sharing the process of making a complex topic fun and interesting for kids!! Excellent post, Jill!

  35. This books looks great. I love the illustrations! Can’t wait to read it.

  36. Jennifer Broedel

    Really looking forward to this one, after I got a sneak peek at NESCBWI! My girls will love it.

  37. What a great idea. As a software engineer by day and an artist in my off hours, crossover aspect has great appeal.
    I also love all the “hidden” computer science nods (Ada Puglace is inspired!)
    Thanks for sharing!

  38. Can’t wait to check this one out!! Always ready for a new Josh Funk book!

  39. I’ve read this book and was completely fascinated on how it took a very complex process and made it readable for this audience. Josh did an incredible job!

  40. This book looks and sounds amazing. I am trying to build my library with coding and critical thinking books.

  41. Would love to add this book to our elementary school library!!

  42. Josh, you’re such a creative writer! I look forward to reading you newest book.

  43. Thanks for the great post. What a fun way to tackle coding.

  44. Josh is one of my favorite authors to share with my students. His stories always make my students laugh. I am so excited to find a picture book about coding!

  45. I can’t wait to read this one! Love your fun educational approach to picture books!

  46. What a clever idea! Eager to get my hands on this one.

  47. I loved this interview. It gets me thinking about how to use some of the topics I know well and turn them into something kids might enjoy.

  48. Pure genius! I love reading about your earlier tries and how it finally came to you. Keep up the good work.

  49. Congratulations, Josh. 🙂
    I love how you found a way to create a day job/writing job mashup!

  50. Now I’m dying to read this book. I’m a fellow techie! Congrats!

  51. I can’t wait to read this with my 10 year old granddaughter

  52. Yea, some help with figuring out what coding is and how it works. I was a parent when computers came out. My kids caught on. I struggle with it. Thanks so much for showing your writing process too.

  53. What a great interview! I loved hearing the story behind the story.

  54. Interesting backstory! I’m excited to finally read Josh’s coding PB.

  55. I definitely want this book to share with my second graders. They love their “I Can Code” station and this would be a fun addition to it. I’m so glad to have read about it here.

  56. I loved hearing this backstory. I had just assumed that you were approached to write this book, Josh, because of your fabulous pbs and your job. I love that it was serendipity and that you wrote this book on your own, combining your two passions–fun to hear how the writing process went. And I bet everyone stayed awake through the whole thing!

  57. Hello Josh & Jill,
    I loved reading this interview and to know more about how this book came into existence. I have collected all the other Girls Who Code books and love them all. Also I have pre-ordered this one and cant wait for tomorrow when I will finally get my hands on it.
    I do book reviews on my youtube channel – #npstation and I plan to do the same for this book as well (no spoilers)
    I am a huge fan of Reshma Saujani and had a wonderful opportunity to meet her team at Maryland State house last month where I also show-cased my channel to the MD Governor Mr.Larry Hogan.
    I want to wish Josh the very best with his book release and all the future books, now I have to wait until 2019 for the next Pearl’s book??
    Thank you once again for such a wonderful interview.

  58. What a cool story (the book) and also the story of how it came to be. As an engineer (mechanical), I’ve faced the challenge of trying to break down a science topic for children, AND make it interesting and fun. Not an easy task, but you did it beautifully Josh! Congrats!

  59. Very good interview with one of my favorite authors! Can’t wait to read it! #Coding

  60. I can’t wait to check this one out! I’m a YS library assistant with 2 young daughters and they’ve loved Josh’s books so far! My oldest is really into gaming and is showing interest in coding. This would be great to share with her!

  61. This book looks so good! I know my kids would love to read this. I loved learning about the backstory, and how this book came about. It was very interesting. Thank you for taking the time to share this with us. And thank you for the opportunity to win a copy of this book.

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