Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

We were sad to hear of the death today of Katherine Johnson at age 101. In recent years there have been several books for young people about this remarkable "hidden figure," including her 2019 autobiography Reaching for the Moon and the titles below. As we near the end of Black History Month and with Women's History Month on the horizon, readers can learn about — and be inspired by — Johnson's life and accomplishments.

Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson
by Katherine Johnson
Intermediate, Middle School    Atheneum    250 pp.
7/19    978-1-5344-4083-8    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-4085-2    $10.99

To help her older brother with his math work at school, Katherine Johnson hatched a plan. She joined his class for a day and quietly tutored him. Katherine was — get this! — four years old at the time. “Math had always come easily to me. I loved numbers and numbers loved me,” she writes in this down-to-earth, conversational autobiography. In 1926, to support her education — and that of her three older siblings — Katherine’s parents moved the family to Institute, West Virginia, which had a high school for Black students; Katherine started there at age ten. Eight years later, she graduated from West Virginia State with a clear goal: to become a research mathematician. After teaching school and having three daughters, Katherine landed her dream job at NACA (NASA’s predecessor), joining a computing unit staffed entirely by African American women. Katherine’s analytic geometry expertise soon made her the go-to expert for calculating flight paths, including Apollo 11’s Lunar Lander trajectory. Johnson’s writing is clear, warm, and candid, and she smoothly weaves in details about Plessy v. Ferguson, the Ku Klux Klan, Emmett Till, etc., to give context for her — and her family’s — personal experiences with segregation and racism. Humble and inspiring, the math genius notes: “Mine is just one tale in a long and unending chain of Black heroism and excellence that began long ago.” Black-and-white photographs are included. TANYA D. AUGER

From the January/February 2020 Horn Book Magazine.

Horn Book
Horn Book

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