Counting on Katherine (Review)
Updated: Nov 21
Author: Helaine Becker
Illustrator: Dow Phumiruk
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2018
Interest Level: Ages 8 - 10
Reading Level: Grades 3 - 5, Lexine 710L
Retail: $17.99, hardcover
Summary: Katherine Johnson was a curious and gifted student who became a mathematician. Being black in the United States meant that her family had to relocate to a town with a high school that would allow her to attend. After being a teacher for several years, she was hired by NACA (later NASA) as a mathematician. Her work was critical to the successful completion of Apollo missions.
I love biographical picture books. I couldn't find enough books like this when my oldest son was growing up. It's important for children to see historical figures as children in order to understand their own potential. It is also important to teach children a balanced view of history, one that includes women and people from diverse backgrounds.
Counting on Katherine is a biographical read-aloud that hits all the right notes. The story is interesting and engaging, the illustrations are realistic but child-friendly, and the subject is a woman who is a humble hero we should all know about.
When Johnson was ready to start high school, her entire family had to move because the local school did not accept black students. This is part of her story, and it could have been left out to make the book more "palatable" to conservative readers. Thankfully it was not.
When Johnson began her career as a mathematician, she worked with other women who were collectively tasked with the tedious and uninteresting work rejected by her more powerful male colleagues. Had this not been mentioned, the reader might not realize that she had to navigate both racism and sexism in her career, making her accomplishments that much more impressive. the author doesn't dwell on these experiences, but weaves them expertly into the narrative.
One might imagine that telling the story of a mathematician would be dull. Far from it. This is a picture book that will be read again and again because it is engaging. We all cheer for Katherine as we read along. The connection to space travel should be meaningful to both boys and girls - anyone who has looked into the night sky with wonder.
This book belongs in every home, every library, and every elementary school.