Thanks to the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson became a household name. This engaging picture book biography, Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13, will undoubtedly spread her fame to a younger audience.
Katherine was an exceptionally intelligent black girl, born in 1918. But her intelligence couldn't save her from racism and segregation: even after she skipped three grades, her family had to move to another West Virginia town to find a high school for black students. After graduating from college at 18, she became a math teacher because it was impossible for her to become a research mathematician. More than 15 years later, she heard about opportunities for women--black women included--to become "computers" for the agency that would become NASA. This involved "calculating long series of numbers" very accurately, a task "that men thought [was] boring and unimportant." But Katherine "knew that without her contributions, a spaceship couldn't reach its destination, nor safely return to Earth." Becker (Lines, Bars, and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs) relates exciting stories of Katherine's career: John Glenn trusting her exacting work in his Project Mercury triple orbit around Earth; Katherine joining the team that sent Apollo 11 to the moon; how she "saved" Apollo 13 when its flight path had to be changed.
Becker interviewed Johnson and used other sources to create a rounded picture of the woman who cared deeply for mathematics and used her knowledge to guide the U.S.'s space program. Neither Becker nor Phumiruk shy away from the realities of racism, depicting examples such as the jarring "Colored Computers" sign designating a room with only brown-skinned women. Dow Phumiruk's Photoshop-scanned watercolor and texture art is clean and attractive, with plenty of mathematical formulae, intertwining Katherine's major interest with Becker's fascinating text. --Melinda Greenblatt, freelance book reviewer