Hidden Figures: Young Readers' Edition by Margot Lee Shetterly, 232pp, RL 4

Hidden Figures: Young Readers' Edition byMargot Lee Shetterly is the "untold, true story of four African-American women who helped launch our nation into space." While I am very unlikely to read a non-fiction (even a young readers' edition) book about science and/or the space race and almost equally unlikely read a biography about mathematician, I found Hidden Figures: Young Readers' Edition highly readable and hard to put down.

What kept me reading were the continual challenges faced by Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden during their time working at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, VA at what was NACA and became NASA. Shetterly provides excellent back matter in her book, starting with a timeline of important historical events, and including a glossary, index, source notes and further reading section, as well as an index. The loss of manpower on the home front during WWII spurred President Roosevelt to desegregate the defense industry, opening the doors of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to African-Americans. The four subjects of Hidden Figures joined the segregated computing pool, the first female computing pool having been established in 1935. 

In 1943, Dorothy Vaughn left her job as a teacher (schools were still segregated at this time) to become a "human computer," doubling her salary. She spent the next 28 years at Langley and saw the end of segregated computing pools, as well as the end of computing pools. Vaughn took computer programming classes and secured a professional job as well as the respect of her coworkers. Shetterly does a masterful job balancing the scientific advances of the time with the burgeoning civil rights movement, noting moments of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination the African-American women faced at work and outside of work, where segregated housing, transportation, schools and shops were the norm. From segregated restrooms (or the lack thereof, forcing the women to walk the distance of the Langley campus when working special jobs) to segregated lunch tables, graduate programs and more. Vaughn and the rest of the African-American women at NACA presented themselves with a professional demeanor and dress, like they were on their "way to a meeting with the president," knowing that they had to prove themselves, both as women and African-Americans. 

In 1939, Katherine Johnson became one of three African-Americans and the only female chosen to desegregate the graduate program at West Virginia University. She went on to calculate the trajectory for the 1961 space flight of Alan Shepherd, the first American man in space. When John Glenn was preparing to orbit earth, he asked for Johnson by name to verify the calculations. Mary Jackson worked at NASA for 34 years, and, encouraged by a supervisor, she took classes to become and engineer. She had to petition to take night classes offered by the University of Virginia at the all-white high school in Hampton. She was promoted to aerospace engineer in 1958 and went on to earn the most senior engineering title possible. Christine Darden, the youngest of the four, was part of the second generation of African-American women working at NASA as "human computers," working first as a data analyst and moving on to the position of aerospace engineer, her early research resulting in a revolution of aerodynamics design.

One of my favorite stories in the book is of Mary Jackson working with her son to build a racer to compete Virginia Peninsula's 1960 soap box derby. Levi Jackson became the first African-American boy in history to win the Hampton Roads area's soap box derby, going on to Akron, Ohio to compete in the All-American Soap Box Derby. The four women of Hidden Figures made huge advances for women and African-Americans in the world of science and they also worked tirelessly outside of work, promoting, leading, inspiring, fighting for recognition and supporting each other's work.

Source: Review Copy


Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science by Jeanne Atkins, 208 pp, RL 4

Verse novels have proven to be a great way to get my students, mostly girls, reading longer, more complex books. My students are predominantly English Language Learners and reading at grade level, especially a book that is 200+ pages long, is a challenge to their comprehension skills and perseverance. The distilled style of writing found in verse novels allows them to persevere and comprehend what they are reading, while also tackling a more challenging text. Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science by Jeannine Atkins is a perfect example of this. A non-fiction book about any of these subjects might be overwhelming for my students, as would a traditional novel. But, writing a verse novel allows the author an immediacy and intimacy that other genres might not. Jeanne Atkins brings this quality to Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science, doing a marvelous job setting the stage for times and places where superstitions and religious beliefs, along with discrimination against women, stifled independent inquiry and scientific thought. 

Atkins looks back to Germany in the 1600s for her first subject, Maria Sybilla Merian, then on to England in the 1800s to Mary Anning, ending with Maria (pronounced ma-RYA-ah) Mitchell in the United States in the late 1800s. With few words, Atkins makes the time and place, as well as the attitudes, vivid and real. She also makes clear the challenges that her subjects faced due to poverty and womanhood. All three women in Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science overcame the challenges of womanhood, poverty, superstition and religion to pursue their passions, starting as children with inspiration and support from their fathers.

Maria Sybilla Merian's story begins in Frankfurt, Germany when she is thirteen. Trained to mix colors and paint nature by her step-father, a guild member, Maria keeps her fascination - and paintings - of caterpillars and butterflies secret due to superstitions of the time. When her step-father abandons the family, she is not allowed to sell her paintings because she is a woman. As an adult, Merian makes a move, and makes and documents her discoveries about how caterpillars become butterflies, eventually sailing to South America where she continued to study bugs, gaining a reputation as one of the foremost entomologists of her day. Possibly the best known of these three scientists and the inspiration for the tongue-twister "She Sells Seashells," Mary Anning also suffered most in her pursuits for being a woman. Atkins's verse is so powerful that I almost felt the cold sea spray and winds and felt the weight of the hammer that Mary and her father carried onto the beach as they scoured the cliffs for fossils. Mary's father dies, leaving the family even deeper in poverty, but she continues hunting. Atkins focuses on the discovery of the ichthyosaurus skeleton made by Mary and her brother Joseph, with growing tension between the two over who actually found it and who would decide what to do with it. While not included in the story told in Finding Wonders, I did learn that Mary Anning was continually discriminated against, despite her string of discoveries and research. Banned from joining the newly formed Geological Society of London - women were not even allowed to attend meetings, Anning was also slighted by fellow geologists who neglected to mention her name when writing about fossils she discovered. Atkins makes a nod to this in her text when, as the ichthyosaurus is being carried into town, a journalist asks young Mary who found it and, knowing that she did the lion's share of the work, nods to her brother, who then gets the notoriety.

Finally, Maria Mitchell, born into a Quaker family on Nantucket Island in 1818, grew up to become the first female astronomy professor in America. Taught by her father, who worked as a map maker and chronometer repairer, and fostered by the Quaker belief of intellectual equality between men and women, Maria thrived and excelled. In 1847 she discovered Miss Mitchell's comet and was awarded a gold medal prize by the King of Denmark. After this, American women took up funds to buy Maria a more powerful telescope and she even traveled the country and Europe, viewing the sky from various longitudes. Besides being a professor at Vassar, where she encouraged students that they were not too delicate to be educated, she worked as the first librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum for twenty years.

Atkins ends Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science with two marvelous, brief chapters: A Note From the Author and Reading Past These Pages. Here, she provides more context for the works and lives of her subjects while also discussing the craft of writing a biography, especially when personal information and artifacts are limited. The selected bibliography is especially welcome in that Atkins includes books in Merian, Anning and Mitchell for adults and young readers. These fascinating, accomplished women are sure to interest readers well into adulthood.

Source: Purchased


Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie SIma

Not Quite Narwhal is the debut picture book from Jessie Sima. With a title and pictures that are equally charming, it is easy to overlook the slim story that reminds me of an under-the-sea-ugly-duckling tale, sort of. 

Kelp was born, quite adorably, in the ocean and is doted on by his family. One day, a strong current sweeps Kelp away from home where he spots a, "mysterious, sparkling creature" that looks like him.

Although he is nervous about walking for the first time, Kelp comes ashore and his life changes forever when he discovers LAND NARWHALS! The unicorns set Kelp straight and show him a good time. He returns home to the welcoming embrace of his family, telling him he is not an narwhal, which, of course, they knew. Torn between two worlds, Kelp and his pod of narwhals find a way to enjoy the best of both worlds.

There is probably a message about having two families or being different and fitting in to be teased from Not Quite a Narwhal, but it's just so magically illustrated and fun to look at that I prefer to enjoy reading it for what it is.

Source: Review Copy