Reaching for the Moon
Katherine Johnson is a gifted mathematician who was responsible for important calculations at NASA, ensuring the safe landing of the first American astronauts in space. Her accomplishments were highlighted in the book and film Hidden Figures. But here, in Reaching for the Moon, she tells her own full story for young readers. She begins with her segregated childhood in West Virginia and describes her family’s determination to make sure that she received an excellent education and developed her intellectual gifts. Johnson loved numbers, and was told early by a professor that she should become a research mathematician. She didn’t follow his advice immediately. First, she fell in love, married, and became a teacher, passing along her enthusiasm for math, until she finally found her way to NASA as a human computer and became a research mathematician after all. Johnson describes how she and her family navigated the dangers of living in a volatile and racist society, and how she strategized her way around racism and sexism at NASA in order to make herself an indispensable—and recognized—part of the engineering and computing teams.
This book is a treat. Johnson narrates a much fuller and more complex version of her story than any feature-length film could accomplish, and she provides astute and humorous interpretations of the events in her life. Johnson is a lively and informative storyteller, providing a fascinating narrative that is packed with insight about her life and education in the South. She emphasizes the excellence of segregated Black schools and colleges, and traces how Black teachers and researchers often were required to have higher qualifications and levels of achievement than their white counterparts; indeed, white engineers knew they needed to seek out Black mathematicians if they were to get the most trustworthy results. This is an important corrective for young readers who may have grown up assuming that underfunded Black schools were inferior. Throughout, Johnson’s intellectual curiosity, kindness, and gentle humor shine through.
Naomi Lesley ©2019 Parents’ Choice
Naomi Lesley taught middle and high school English for six years. She is currently in a doctoral program at the George Washington University, focusing on American young adult literature.