by Claudia Rojas
The word “figure” means: the outline of a person, an important number, or as a verb, to calculate. It is a word perfectly used in Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, which presents the narrative of several African-American women behind the scenes of space advancement.
Hidden Figures does not read like a history textbook. It engages by weaving the stories of different women to show their love of math in a field once ruled by men. These women’s careers evolved with NASA, formerly the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
This Young Readers’ Edition, a HarperCollins publication, is suited for ages 8 and up. The prologue is condensed. The chapters are manageable, often 10 or fewer pages long with sparse yet useful illustrations. It is more narrative than biography; racial prejudices are mentioned to give cultural context. The vocabulary is accessible without missing opportunities to explain science concepts and government laws. There is timeline and glossary at the end.
Young readers come to see Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden as not only groundbreaking mathematicians, but as persons with the burden of being both black and woman. Each woman is dedicated enough space to characterize their personalities and life experiences. Many of these women were wives and mothers, who at times sacrificed time with family to earn money that would be used to further their children’s standing in the U.S.
With narrative, this history becomes alive and math calculations carry suspense. The backdrop of World War II, post-War sensationalism, and global space competition is described to readers through the daily lives of these women. Before the 1940s, women were not considered capable of doing “men’s work,” but with the men fighting overseas, White and Black women were invited to apply for mathematician jobs, and eventually, were promoted to engineer status.
In the style of great research, readers learn about the Hampton, Virginia community and contextualize the narratives of historical figures like Rosa Parks and the Little Rock Nine. The lives of children and college students in segregated schools are mixed into the narrative.
Every detail in the book enhances the reading experience. Hidden Figures is a fantastic and important book, and it may be one of the few books with a matching great film.
Hidden Figures gets 5 stars.