Counting on Katherine
Helaine Becker and Dow Phumiruk
Macmillan Children’s Books
There is so much to like about this splendid picture-book biography of Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician.
We first meet the young Katherine as a lover of numbers and everything to do with counting, and an insatiable curiosity– about the universe in particular.
An excellent student, she jumped three school years but her US hometown high school was racially segregated and barred Katherine from attending. As a consequence, her family moved to a town that had a black high school and there the girl flourished, excelling at all subjects although still liking maths the best.
Despite there being no jobs for women research mathematicians at the time, Katherine was tenacious, holding fast to her dream while becoming a primary school teacher.
In the 1950s she finally secured a post with NACA, which was later subsumed into NASA although the job she and other women did was one the men deemed unimportant. Undaunted, Katherine knew that her role was crucial: she was able to determine the trajectory of a spaceship.
Eventually her skills in mathematical accuracy, leadership as well as her creativity and intellectual curiosity led to a promotion to Project Mercury a programme designed to send the first US astronauts into space. She won the trust of the project’s lead astronaut and promised him, “You can count on me,”.
Again it was “You can count on me” when she calculated the flight path for Apollo 11, Apollo 12 and when she ensured the safe return of Apollo 13.
Having overcome much in the way of racism and sexism, on the way, Katherine had earned her place among the stars.
Helaine Becker’s direct telling is highly readable and she makes clever use of the word ‘count’ along the way; while Dow Phumirik’s excellent uncluttered illustrations, some with background computations subtly underline Katherine’s passion for things numerical.
What a splendid partnership this is; and the resulting book will surely inspire and empower youngsters, especially girls to pursue what they love.