A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon

Book review by
Angela Zimmerman, Common Sense Media
A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon Book Poster Image
Inspiring bio of brilliant NASA mathematician in the 1960s.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Shows kids what U.S. was like at dawn of desegregation. Also teaches kids about NASA's early space exploits, has basic math problems (erroneously solved, to prove a point) scattered throughout the story.  

Positive Messages

Strong messages about power of perseverance, courage, hard work. It's possible to overcome racism, sexism, socio-economic disadvantages and change the world.  

Positive Role Models & Representations

Katherine Johnson is an incredible role model with keen awareness of right and wrong. She shattered the glass ceiling that loomed so low over African American females -- especially in the science field -- in the 1960s and ended up changing the world. Her family was very supportive, moving 120 miles so that she could attend a high school that accepted black students. 

Violence & Scariness

One page depicts two groups of people -- one white and one black -- in a state of tension. Some of the people appear angry, others confused and worried. 

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon is a biographical picture book of an African American woman who worked at NASA in the late 1950s and '60s as a mathematician. Johnson (along with some of her colleagues) was the subject of the 2016 biopic Hidden Figures. The story shows troubling moments of racism and sexism, but they can give parents an opportunity to talk about civil rights, the space race, and the role most women were expected to play in society in that era. 

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What's the story?

A COMPUTER CALLED KATHERINE: HOW KATHERINE JOHNSON HELPED PUT AMERICA ON THE MOON is a picture book about a female African American NASA mathematician who overcame tremendous adversity to achieve her dreams and become an accomplished and well-respected figure. Even as a young girl, Katherine was a whiz with numbers, skipping grades and ultimately graduating from high school early and starting college at 15. Because teaching was one of the only jobs available to women back then, Katherine initially worked as a math teacher before discovering a job opportunity at a research center in Virginia. She was hired as a "computer" at NASA, and helped the male engineers chart flight plans and design airplanes. Her brilliance and tenacity soon became essential to the team, and she played a huge role in America's victory in the "space race" against the Soviet Union. A Computer Called Katherine gives preschoolers an introduction to the trials endured by African Americans and women in the workforce in the 1950s and '60s.

Is it any good?

With vivid watercolor illustrations and an exciting depiction of Katherine Johnson's life from early childhood through adulthood, this is a winning pick for young kids. A Computer Called Katherine offers a great way to introduce them to an important chapter in American history and an incredibly inspiring woman who helped change the world. Some of the language and math concepts will likely be above preschoolers' heads, and the text gets somewhat dense, but even young kids will enjoy the story about one of the most phenomenal minds of the 20th century.

With important messages about perseverance and the courage to break through barriers, A Computer Called Katherine reminds kids of all ages that they, too, are capable of achieving their dreams and changing the world. Back matter includes a page of some cool historical NASA documents and a handy timeline of Katherine's life and accomplishments. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about civil rights and the challenges for women shown in A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon. How rare was it for a woman to be a scientist or mathematician in the 1950s and '60s, particularly women of color? How much do you think things have changed?

  • Who are some other women in history who accomplished great things? Who are some of your favorites?  

  • Talk about space and go outside and look at the stars and moon. Would you like to work for an organization like NASA? Where would you like to go in a spaceship? 

Book details

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