“Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson” is a very powerful book. Not only is the story of Katherine Johnson’s life inspiring, but the story she tells is filled with emotion and facts and history, and the way she combines them all into this middle grade book is superb.
From the age of four, Katherine was a prodigy. Of course, it helped that her parents valued education and taught their children at home even before they started school. But when Katherine’s older brother had a hard time in math, her mother sent her to school with him to help him. The teachers at the small, segregated school were amazed at Katherine’s abilities, and she began to attend school in her own right.
Readers will cringe when, in spite of a college degree in mathematics, Katherine and her college-educated husband had to take jobs as housekeeper and handyman for a wealthy white couple because those were the best-paying jobs they could get. Johnson paints a picture of a segregated South, and she doesn’t mince words when she describes the unwillingness and downright refusal of the Southern states to follow federal law after the Supreme Court held in Brown v Board of Education that segregation was unconstitutional.
In fact, adult readers might just learn something about the history of segregation. Even after reading many books and novels about segregation, I had never heard the term massive resistance. That was when many Southern states passed state laws declaring that any public school that integrated its students would not receive state funding. That effectively stopped any schools that might have considered integrating from doing so. In fact, Johnson points out that her brother and sister benefitted from something that many Southern colleges and universities did during that time to avoid integration — they provided scholarships so that students of color would attend other universities and not integrate their institutions.
But Johnson doesn’t just provide a history of segregation and discrimination in the 20th century. She writes about her love of math and teaching math, and she writes about NASA and the contributions she and other women of color made to the space program.
Johnson’s love of mathematics shines through the story. Often she counts things and uses numbers to tell the story. It’s what she says about the teaching of math that strikes home with this teacher, me, who teaches math to elementary-age students. Johnson writes:
“Back then, just as today, some teachers merely taught right and wrong answers. I don’t agree with that approach. I taught students to understand the background of what they were working on, how to figure out what the problem was and then how to attack it. Because if you approach any problem properly, you’ll get the answer. If you don’t get it the first time, you’ll get it the second time. Int he meantime, you’ll experience the joy of learning and have the tremendous satisfaction that comes with figuring something out on your own. That is much better than just solving the question on a test.”
In fact, Johnson loved teaching math because she felt that often teachers didn’t have any passion for math, and sometimes their students ended up intimidated by the subject. She notess, “If you want to know the answer to something, you have to ask a question. Always remember that there’s no such thing as a dumb question except if it goes unasked.” Teachers like me will love seeing this statement, something we tell students over and over, written by a famous mathematician. Maybe finally students will believe it.
Space aficionados will love learning the fact that John Glenn demanded that Johnson go through the data from the computer and check it for accuracy before he got into the rocket and orbited the Earth three times. That fact was in the movie “Hidden Figures, based, in part, on Johnson’s life.” The story of the evolution of the space program is fascinating, but every part of Johnson’s story is equally gripping.
Johnson offers us her personal stories throughout the book, sharing details about her siblings, her parents, her children, and her first and second husband. Readers will cry along with Johnson when her first husband gets sick, and they will get angry at the instances of discrimination that occur regularly and all-too often throughout Johnson’s life.
But the tale of determination and love that shines through this autobiography makes it one that will stand out as an extremely readable and relatable nonfiction book for middle grade readers. It’s a nonfiction book that reads like fiction, and it would be a great read aloud.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, for review purposes.