Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race Book Poster Image
Picture book intro to important, inspirational story.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Biographical information about four African American women who excelled at math and in STEM careers. The work of NASA and its precursor in developing airplanes during World War II, rockets for the space race, and supersonic airplanes. Milestones in the space program -- launching a manned rocket, and putting men on the moon. Segregation laws in the South, and the civil rights movement. Vocabulary defined in glossary includes "aeronautics," "engineer," "orbit," "satellite," "sonic boom," "speed of sound," "turbulence," and "wind tunnel." References to John Glenn, President John F. Kennedy, Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11, Sputnik.

Positive Messages

African American women can excel in math and STEM careers. Math and engineering jobs are exciting and contribute to the development of important technology. People who break barriers pave the way for those who follow. Be confident in your abilities, gifts, and skills, even when society isn't. If there are barriers holding you back, you can push against them.  

Positive Role Models & Representations

You can't get better role models than these four African American female math whizzes who broke new ground at NASA. Against all odds, they secured jobs in a rigorous STEM field previously restricted to white males, and insistently pushed at the barriers that held them back. All four faced serious discrimination but gained great respect in the workplace. Their work contributed significantly to the war effort in World War II, helped put a man into space and men on the moon, and helped developed supersonic airplanes.

Violence & Scariness
Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race is a picture book version of the inspirational true story now well known from the award-winning film, and previously published as a best-selling book for adults and a young readers' edition for 8-to-12-year-olds. The four African American women featured in the book were, as the book repeatedly puts it, "good at math. Really good." They overcame discrimination during the Jim Crow era of segregation laws in the South, and excelled as human "computers" at NASA, working on the complicated calculations required to design and test new airplanes during WWII, and later rockets for the space race. The book includes a timeline, bios of the four women, and a glossary explaining words like "aeronautics," "sonic boom," and "turbulence." It also explains segregation and civil rights history. 

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What's the story?

HIDDEN FIGURES: THE TRUE STORY OF FOUR BLACK WOMEN AND THE SPACE RACE tells the story of four African American women -- Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden -- who all worked at NASA in impressive STEM careers against a backdrop of racial discrimination. Vaughn was hired in 1943 as a human "computer," to do complicated calculations before computers were invented. Her work advanced the development of faster airplanes for World War II. She later learned how to program the earliest computers and taught other women of color to program. Mary Jackson also worked as a computer, testing airplanes in wind tunnels. She fought for the right to attend an all-white school to take the courses she needed to become the first African American female engineer at the lab. Katherine Johnson analyzed turbulence and calculated the course rockets traveled through space. Her work was essential for the first manned space flight. Christine Darden worked on NASA's mission to the moon and designed supersonic airplanes.

Is it any good?

This wildly inspirational story of four African American women who excelled in STEM careers deserves to be shouted from the rooftops, and this picture book brings it to young readers. Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race covers a lot of ground, packing a lot into its few pages. Author Margot Lee Shetterly worked with Winifred Conkling, author of numerous nonfiction picture books, to present simple explanations of complicated historical events and scientific concepts. For instance, to explain segregation, the book says, "She lived in Virginia, a southern state, where laws segregated, or kept apart, black people and white people." It then lists concrete examples: "They could not eat in the same restaurants. They could not drink from the same water fountains." With similar clear and simple language, one woman becomes an engineer designing "supersonic airplanes -- planes flying faster than the speed of sound." And threading the women's stories together is the refrain that each one "was good at math. Really good."

The colorful illustrations by Laura Freeman make the compelling, human story come to life. The women look real in a way that will help kids relate. The art is evocative and emotionally exciting, playing on the inherent drama of the civil rights marches and the excitement of sending humans into space.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the segregation described in Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race. Did you know it was once against the law in the American South for blacks and whites to use the same restroom, go to the same school, or sit at the same table in the lunchroom? How have things changed since then? Are blacks and whites still treated differently?

  • Do you face discrimination in your own life because of your race or because you're a girl? In what ways did these women challenge discrimination? What could you try?

  • Are you interested in work that involves science, technology, engineering, or math? What sorts of jobs are available in those fields today?

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