About the Holiday
Today’s holiday is celebrated around the world and focuses on the social, economic, cultural, and political accomplishments of women. Spurred on by recent events and increased activism, this year’s theme is “Press for Progress: a Push for Gender Parity worldwide.” Rallies, performances, and discussions as well as special events and lessons in schools are just some of the ways that International Women’s Day is commemorated.
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race
Written by Margot Lee Shetterly | Illustrated by Laura Freeman
“Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden were good at math…really good.” The United States was involved in World War II, and Dorothy wanted to help the war effort by working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to make planes faster, stronger, and safer. Developing new airplanes required lots of tests at the Langley Laboratory in Virginia. Today, we use computers to do the kinds of math needed, “but in the 1940s computers were actual people like Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, and Christine.”
Even though Dorothy was a woman and an African-American in the segregated South, Dorothy did not think her dream of getting a job was impossible. After all, she was really good at math. She applied and was hired as a computer. At Langley, whites and blacks worked in different buildings and had separate facilities. After the United States won the war, Dorothy stayed on to create better aircraft.
Now America and Russia were in competition to build the best airplanes. This required more math, more tests, and more computers. Mary Jackson was hired at Langley to test model airplanes in wind tunnels. Mary had her sights set on becoming an engineer, but most of the engineers were men. To prepare, Mary needed to take advanced math classes, “but she was not allowed into the white high school where the classes were taught.” Mary didn’t take no for an answer. She got special permission to take classes, got good grades, and “became the first African-American female engineer at the laboratory.”
In 1953 Katherine Jackson was hired for a team who tested airplanes while they were in the air. Her work was to analyze turbulence to make planes safer in dangerous gusts of wind. She wanted to go to her team’s meetings, but she was told by her boss again and again that it was impossible; women were not allowed to attend meetings. At last her persistence paid off, and she became the first woman to sign one of the group’s reports.
When machine computers were installed at Langley in the 1950s, they were faster than the human computers but made many mistakes. “Dorothy learned how to program the computers so they got the right answers and taught the other women in her group how to program too.”
In 1957 Russia launched a satellite into space, ramping up the competition with the United States. Now “the United States started building satellites to explore space too,” and the name of the agency was changed to the National Aeronautics and Space Agency or NASA. Then President John F, Kennedy set a goal of sending a man to the moon. First, however, there would need to be many experiments, new space craft, and tests to send astronauts into orbit. This meant more people who were good at math would be needed.
When the first manned space flight was planned, Katherine calculated the trajectory that would take John Glenn into space and bring him home again. In 1967 Dorothy Darden came to work at Langley. She loved electronic computers and wanted to become an engineer. “Her first job was to help with NASA’s mission to the moon.”
When Neal Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface for the first time on July 20, 1969, he said it was a giant leap for mankind. “It was also a giant leap for Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, Christine, and all of the other computers and engineers who had worked at the lab over the years.” The moon landing was just the beginning. NASA engineers were already dreaming of trips to other planets and super-fast spacecraft. And although it would be hard and require a lot of numbers, “Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, Christine knew one thing: with hard work, perseverance, and a love of math, anything was possible.”
Margot Lee Shetterly brings her compelling story Hidden Figures to children in this exceptional picture book that skillfully reveals the talents and dreams of Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, Christine as well as the work atmosphere and social injustices of the time period. While acknowledging the struggles and obstacles the four women faced, Shetterly keeps her focus on the incredible achievements of these brilliant women and the positive changes and opportunities for others they created. Brief-yet-detailed descriptions and explanations of math, science, and computer terms flow smoothly in the text, allowing all readers to understand and appreciate the women’s work.
As Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, Christine each begin their work at Langley as young women, Laura Freeman establishes their dreams and their particular field of expertise through richly colorful illustrations that highlight the schematics, tools, equipment, and models they used. In one particularly affecting spread, Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, and Christine go off to their offices on the left-hand side, and their white counterparts head out to theirs on the right-hand side while the blueprint of their building lies under their feet. Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, and Christine’s clothing is also mirrored in color by the women on the other side of the fold. Period dress and electronics show progression through the years, and kids may marvel at the size of early computers. The final image of Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, and Christine as older women is moving and inspirational.
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race is an outstanding biography of four women who contributed their gifts for math as well as their self-confidence not only to science but to dreamers in their own and future generations. The book would be a stirring choice for classroom and home libraries.
Ages 4 – 8
HarperCollins, 2018 | ISBN 978-0062742469
Discover more about Margot Lee Shetterly and her books on her website.
To learn more about Laura Freeman, her books, and her art, visit her website.
International Women’s Day Activity
Women in STEM Coloring Book
Discover five women who broke barriers and made important contributions to the science, technology, engineering, and math fields in this printable Women in STEM Coloring Book created by the United States Department of Energy.
Picture Book Review