Review of Grasping Mysteries: Girls Who Loved Math

Grasping Mysteries: Girls Who Loved Math
by Jeannine Atkins
Intermediate, Middle School    Atheneum    320 pp.    g
8/20    978-1-5344-6068-3    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-6070-6    $10.99

Atkins’s (Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science, rev. 7/16) latest collective biography in verse spotlights seven “women who used math to frame and solve problems, fix things, or understand the size of the universe.” Tracing her subjects’ lives from childhood to adulthood, Atkins stitches together intimate slice-of-life moments and impressive professional accomplishments, taking poetic license with “dialogue and sensory detail.” First up is astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750–1848), who “writes a note to Dr. Maskelyne / at the Royal Observatory, announcing her second comet. / Then she measures sugar to make gooseberry jam.” By pairing comet-discovering with jam-making, and subversively categorizing both as women’s work, Atkins underscores what would have been an outrageous notion in late-eighteenth-century England. Similarly multilayered and thoughtful are Atkins’s portraits of nurse and statistician Florence Nightingale; inventor and electrical engineer Hertha Marks Ayrton; geologist and oceanographic cartographer Marie Tharp; NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson; Census Bureau statistician Edna Lee Paisano; and astronomer Vera Rubin. Astute and richly detailed, Atkins’s free-verse biographies address head-on the challenges — both shared (sexism) and distinct (financial hardship, racism, work-family balance, illness) — that these passionate and determined trailblazers overcame. And it’s entirely fitting that Atkins’s lyrical tributes are keenly evocative when referencing math: “Subtraction is soothing, though she dislikes / landing on zero. Something is missing. She wants more.” An author’s note, brief biographical profiles, and a selected bibliography are appended.

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Tanya D. Auger

Tanya D. Auger
Tanya D. Auger is a former middle school teacher with a master’s degree in learning and teaching from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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