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Counting the Stars: The Story of Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician

Book review by
Mandie Caroll, Common Sense Media
Counting the Stars: The Story of Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician Book Poster Image
Beautiful, detailed Katherine Johnson bio for older kids.

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

Educational Value

Readers will learn about an important historical figure, Katherine Johnson, and the importance of her work to space exploration, as well as about the critical work of "human computers" in ensuring the safety of American astronauts. They will also learn that math is a critical part of astronomy and aeronautics.

Positive Messages

Curiosity can lead to important experiences and accomplishments. Never accept limitations placed on you because of your skin color or gender. Find mentors who believe in you; they will help you achieve great things. A positive outlook can inspire you to work hard and do your best.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Katherine Johnson is a fantastic role model. Though she was certainly naturally gifted with intelligence, she was enthusiastic about learning and worked hard in school and in her career. Racism and sexism are referred to, but the focus is on her perseverance and confidence in demanding that she be treated as an equal team member. Most characters, including Katherine, are Black, though White male engineers and astronauts are also pictured.

Violence & Scariness
Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Counting the Stars: The Story of Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician, by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by award-winner Raúl Colón, tells the inspiring history of a "human computer" and Black woman who calculated flight paths for some of the most famous space flights in United States history. Johnson (and some of her colleagues) was the subject of the 2016 biopic Hidden Figures. This biography emphasizes the power of curiosity, perseverance, and mentorship in personal and career achievement. It has a light touch when it comes to exploring the racism and sexism Johnson faced, focusing in on her admirable work ethic and confidence in demanding she be treated as an equal. This book is a detailed, worthwhile deep dive into the life and work of Katherine Johnson, appropriate for older elementary readers who like biographies and nonfiction about space.

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What's the story?

COUNTING THE STARS: THE STORY OF KATHERINE JOHNSON, NASA MATHEMATICIAN introduces Katherine as a math whiz kid who skips grades, starts high school at age 10, and has college math courses designed just for her. After a few years teaching high school, she lands a job as a human computer in the segregated computer pool at Langley Aeronautics and quickly proves indispensable to the flight research team. When John Glenn is set to orbit the Earth, he trusts only her to do a final check on the machine computer numbers. When that flight is a success, Katherine wonders where else her math skills can help astronauts explore. End notes tell of her accomplishments after the Glenn orbit.

Is it any good?

This information-rich book with its luminous illustrations tells a compelling story about an important American historical figure. Spreads of illustrator Raúl Colón's trademark brushed-through pictures subtly make Katherine the star with prismatic rainbow dresses, while the men get plain white shirts. The timeline focuses on Katherine's early life as a math whiz kid, grade-skipper and her early college admittance, marriage and kids, and impressive career at NASA through John Glen's 1962 orbit of the earth, for which she calculated flight paths. The story doesn't emphasize or ignore the racism and sexism she faced, but emphasizes her brilliance and indispensability to NASA.

The book does not explain how Black women came to work at Langley as human computers, which would have been welcome as a part of the historical context. Pages often include several paragraphs, so the text can feel quite dense and slow moving. The book requires attention and good comprehension skills of solo readers, but the effort will be worth it for older elementary kids who are budding astronomers or just love biographies.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about racism and sexism Katherine faced in Counting the Stars: The Story of Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician. How rare was it for a woman to be an engineer or mathematician in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, particularly for women of color? How much do you think things have changed?

  • Talk about the character strengths of Katherine Johnson. In what ways have you shown perseverance or teamwork?

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

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