by Margot Lee Shetterly
In my review of Rise of the Rocket Girls, I shared a little extra background on myself and my daughter. Namely:
I am the mother of a STEM-focused daughter, who is currently slaying her high-school honors-track pre-engineering program. She aspires to study mechanical engineering as an undergrad, and then on to aerospace engineering. My girl wants to be a rocket scientist, or something like that.
Hidden Figures has been on our collective radar since the trailer for the movie appeared back in August 2016.
— Jenn 📚 (@JennJ) August 17, 2016
We ended up seeing the movie before I was able to read the book, which is not my usual order of preference.
No matter. As it turns out, the movie is kinda based on the book. Elements of the book are recognizable in the film, but with clever editing and dramatic liberties, they keep their own identities.
Definitely see the film. It is outstanding and my 14-year old loved it.
I would even suggest that the movie is more user-friendly to the topic than the book. The film directly follows the narrative of three women, Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, and their challenges and triumphs among the first black women computers at NASA.
The book is so, so much more.
Hidden Figures is the unseen history of the early days of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
It’s also the history of Jim Crow laws, civil rights, and women’s rights at a very specific moment in time, as experienced by a very specific group of people.
Part 1: Rating & Audience
I rated this book four stars.
My largest, and in truth, only, criticism of Hidden Figures is its dense writing. While the movie is family friendly and particularly accessible to YA+ audiences, the book is not. I expect a history of aeronautical and aerospace engineering would reference complicated technical ideas, however, the book suffers from repeated usage of ten-dollar words over simpler language.
It’s disappointing because the history and people captured in this book deserve a wide, young, and diverse audience.
The publisher does offer a Young Readers (grades 3-7) edition of this book, which I have not read.
I would have loved to share this book with my 14-year old daughter, but neither edition seems an appropriate reading level for her. Were it not for the film, she would have no exposure to these topics or the existence of these trailblazing women.
Part 2: Content and Structure
Hidden Figures is well written and edited. Shetterly cleanly and concisely follows a complex narrative including different women (and men), from the perspectives of both race and gender. The scope is enormous, and for her first book, she wrangles her subjects like a pro.
No doubt, Shetterly’s skill is impressive. Each chapter grew in interest, and at the halfway point, I didn’t want to put the book down – and I already knew the ending!
Hidden Figures brings key background contributors into focus, providing new insight into some of NASA’s most famous accomplishments of the 1960s.
NASA Langley’s history of hiring, staffing, and retaining women computers is well explained. Shetterly adds depth by selectively focusing on four women and their challenges in obtaining educational and career opportunities, raising children, building community, and supporting each other.
At the same time, Shetterly gives a solid history of the Hampton/Norfolk/Newport News military industrial zone. It’s an interesting study of bases and cities created out of farmlands, and American national priorities and missions against a backdrop of Virginia state laws and culture.
Part 3: Take-Aways
I read Hidden Figures during February, which is Black History Month in the United States.
In addition to the incredible social, political, and military history contained in these pages, Hidden Figures is also the story of early-to-mid 20th century African American struggles and triumphs.
It’s not hard to compare where American society was 60 years ago, and where we are today. In its way, Hidden Figures asks:
- What does it mean to be American, and who decides?
- Do all Americans share the same freedoms and equality?
- How much mid-20th century American progress was ultimately lost due to racial segregation and gender discrimination?
- Why should we fund science and exploration when faced with so many problems on earth?
Katherine Johnson believes education and careers in science and mathematics might be the great equalizer:
Katherine, in fact, thought science – and space – was the ideal place for talented people of any background. The results were what mattered, she told classrooms of students. Math was either right or wrong, and if you got it right, it didn’t matter what color you were.
Hidden Figures, p. 243-244
Hidden Figures is an important book, and definitely a recommended read.
I look forward to Margot Lee Shetterly’s next project.
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