June 9, 2014
Chase Cunningham fights bad guys in cyberspace. He began his cynja training serving in the U.S. Navy, where he worked as an analyst in the Department of Defense’s network exploitation program. He earned a B.S. from the American Military University, and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in information systems security from Colorado Tech University. Chase always keeps his passwords secret.
Heather C. Dahl writes about the magic in technology. She’s a journalist who has covered politics and foreign affairs on the ground and now she researches battles in cyberspace. Heather earned a B.A. from Willamette University, a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University, and an MBA from The Johns Hopkins University. She never shares her USB drive with anyone.
Bianca Schulze: Your recent release The Cynja, the first volume in an action packed picture book series about malicious cyber attacks, is a very current topic. Why was it important for you to tell this story to children?
Heather C. Dahl: The cyber world is filled with battles between good and evil—it’s as thrilling as any comic book—and yet it didn’t have its own superhero. So we started thinking, what would you call someone with super powers in cyberspace? What would they look like? They’d need to be smart and stealthy, wouldn’t they? And have awesome weapons? And before you could say “DDoS attack!” we had “the Cynja”—a cyber ninja!
The other thing was that the kids in our lives were reading stories about old-school bad guys like dragon slayers even as there were digital monsters invading their computers. It was time for an upgrade, one that could teach kids a really valuable life lesson as they grew into technology: There’s a whole new world of digital crime out there!
BS: What do you hope readers will take away from a story-time session of The Cynja?
Chase Cunningham: Well, we hope that kids will, first of all, have fun—be mesmerized by the images, the characters, and the action. And then we hope they make the connection between fantasy and the real world. All the villains in the book—the viruses, zombies, worms and bots—are the real bad guys in cyberspace—bad guys I fight everyday at work. We hope at the end of the story kids know that bad guys can live in their computers, tablets, and possibly in Mom’s smartphone. And that’s why they need to make smart choices to be safe online.
BS: Understanding the background behind a cyber-attack is quite technological. There are multiple layers and plenty of technical terms; however, the layout of the book and the way your story takes shape, the process is broken down into a more simplified and easy to understand progression. How long did you work on the book to ensure its simplicity without losing enigma?
HD: We’re so proud that PBS NewsHour described our book as “geekily accurate”. [See video below.] Chase and I set out to write a kids adventure story rooted in real technology. In fact, Chase and what he does at work, is our inspiration for the Cynja character. That’s why we call Chase the CynjaMaster.
CC: So, I provided insight into what it was like to fight real battles in cyberspace—in all their glorious, geeky detail. But we then had to turn this into something a kid would relate to—and so Heather spent a lot of time with her nephew trying to see the world through a six-year old’s imagination—and what it’s like to be the hero of your own magical battles against bad guys.
HD: We wanted to illustrate The Cynja in a way that readers could understand the gravity of being stuck in an infected network or encountering malicious malware. Shirow Di Rosso, our illustrator, who we call the Artmaster, was an IT engineer, so he knew exactly what this world looked like and how to visualize it in an imaginative yet accurate way. We were dazzled by the results. Cyber space will never be the same again!
BS: What kind of feedback have you been receiving from children that have read it? And what age groups have you found it resonates with the most?
CC: After some independent testing, PC Magazine found The Cynja made kids go “Cool!”
The kids loved it and their little reader test base is “eagerly anticipating the next issue.” And they’re not the only ones we’ve heard from. We’ve received fan mail from young Cynjas all over the world, including photos of home made Cynja costumes, as well as hearing about an eight-year old reader holding a Cynja party that included a Cynja swag bag for all his guests. We’ve found the story resonating with kids of all ages. And parents get a refresher course in cybersecurity by reading along with their kids. The news headlines we all hear–the Target compromise or the Heartbleed vunerability—are, sadly, all too real and devastating, even though it’s hard to visualize the way they happen and their impact. Visualizing this virtual world is an important step toward cybersecurity being taken seriously by everyone everyday. It’s important for kids and parents to understand that being safe online is just as important as being safe walking down the street.
BS: In the dedications, you both acknowledge Rodney Joffe for bringing you together to write The Cynja. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to work together?
HD: Rodney is the inspiration for The Cynesi, the wise mentor of cyberspace who teaches the Cynja how to defend the Internet from the Botmaster. Rodney’s one of the nation’s top cyber experts and Chase and I were fortunate to work and learn from him. His passion for cybersecurity is contagious and it fueled our passion for teaching others about this new world. That’s what brought us together to write this book. Rodney is the kind of noble warrior we hope the next generation will look to for inspiration.
BS: What is your process for collaboration?
CC: This book is about disruption—and disruptive technology at its worst. But, happily, the book itself—both the physical copy and the ebook—is an example of tech disruption at its best. Cloud based programs for collaboration have come a long way, and it was these tools that propelled what I call our around the world “ping-pong” collaboration. In fact, Heather and I wrote the first five pages by texting each other. The first time Heather, Shirow and I were ever in the same physical location was after The Cynja was completed and at the publishers. Technology was the key to realizing our vision—and to letting us be ourselves.
BS: What does a typical writing day look like for you? And do you have a favorite place to write?
CC: I prefer to be at home and write on my back porch if I can. But realistically for me, when I’m ready, I can write anywhere.
HD: Chase and I both work for tech firms and juggle our writing with demanding workloads. When I had a free moment, I’d pop into whichever cafe I happened to be near while on travel—Beijing, Barcelona, Boston, Dublin, London, Los Angeles, Orlando, San Diego, Seattle, Stuttgart—and through email, texting and online video chat, we wrote the story. It is truly a book about cyberspace written in cyberspace!
BS: What should we expect to see in the next book of the series? And how many volumes will there be?
CC: The bad guys transcend national boundaries. They are far more organized and dangerous than people know. Their attacks keep evolving so there is no shortage of material for our series. Volume 2 is already underway and we’ll have some fun Cynja activities for our Circle of Cynja community soon.
BS: If you could be reincarnated as your favorite literary character, who would you choose and why?
CC: Probably Captain Ahab, I always loved the story and his single minded focus, but I would do things a bit differently…plus he was just a cool character.
HD: Probably a mashup of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Princess Leia. In Star Wars, we have a dedicated, driven and funny heroine who trained as a Jedi, wielded a light saber and yet could wear fashionable flowing gowns. Laura Ingalls, while from a different reality, has Leia’s feisty spirit. She lived the life of a frontier girl on her terms—and didn’t care about meeting society’s expectations. She taught me that being smart is a good thing, that learning to write opens doors, and to always be grateful, even during times of hardship.
BS: As a parting note, is there anything you would like to share with your readers?
HD: I wrote this book for my nephew. I’m happy to report he has moved past slaying dragons and now focuses on using his optic pulse sword to slash worms, Trojans, viruses and any other malware that has infiltrated his bedroom. My nephew has fallen in love with The Cynja. He’s our #1 fan.
CC: I wrote this book for my two daughters; it’s exactly how I plan to teach them about the dangers of the Internet. We live in an amazing digital world that has brought everyone enormous benefits. But just as you can do good or bad in the real world, so you can do good or bad in cyberspace.
It’s important for my girls to know that it’s up to people like me to protect vital computer systems. But it’s also important to encourage kids to be safe online and to learn about the technology. Incredibly, we’re facing a shortage of cybersecurity professionals that is expected to last for years. So, my hope is that the Cynja might inspire some of its readers to join me in fighting the bad guys online. The world really does need more Cynjas!
For more information visit:
Read The Children’s Book Review‘s full review of The Cynja.
Video Courtesy of PBS:
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