Review: Hidden Figures

“They would prove themselves equal or better, having internalized the Negro theorem of needing to be twice as good to get half as far.” p. 48

Hidden Figures:The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly.
William Morrow Imprint, HarperCollins, New York, 2016.
Adult non-fiction, 346 pages including notes and index.
New York Times Bestseller.
Lexile: not yet leveled
AR Level:  9.7 (worth 18.0 points)

In 1969, a human being set foot on the moon for the first time.  Although you wouldn’t know it from the all-white, mostly-male camera coverage, the calculations of a black woman helped him get there.  But this story starts much earlier, when the labor shortage of WWII allowed highly qualified, extremely intelligent, and very respectable female African-American mathematicians a chance at a job with pay and work closer to what they deserved.

They came in droves to Langley, in Hampton, Virginia, for a unprecedented opportunity in the midst of a heavily segregated community.  Those who stayed, and their white female counterparts, spent decades breaking barriers and proving their value to aeronautics over and over again, so that when John Glenn needed the numbers for his first spaceflight checked, Katherine Johnson would be in the right place to be able to perform those and other calculations.


This book is so superb you should run out and get it right now.

As soon as I saw this book, I knew it was just the sort of thing I’d enjoy.  Women in STEM?  Black women working as mathematicians and engineers? (although typically without the title and pay of a white man doing the same work.)  Most of this happening before the civil rights movement?

I ordered the hardcover.  And then the softcover of the young reader’s edition, because I’m sure we’ll be reading it at home (I have to preview it and see if it would be better as a family or individual child read-aloud or better for independent reading.)  It’s not a Target pick for me, but I did see on my last diverse book trip that they are selling both versions at Target now in softcover.

I couldn’t figure out how to read this at first.  Most non-fiction requires more concentration for me and with Baby, concentration is in short supply at home.  I keep at least one book at work to read on my meal breaks in the winter or when there’s bad weather.  Depending on how much concentration my lunch needed, I could get between one and four chapters done a day.  I did bring it home a few times, and last week for #DiverseAThon, I kept it in my traveling between jobs bag.

Having seen the movie trailers (and knowing there are three main characters in the film), I was prepared for a large cast of characters.  But the book opens by sticking to just one, and the narrative flowed smoothly.  When the other major figures begin appearing in the book about nine or ten chapters in, we’re already comfortable with West Computing.  Dorothy Vaughn has shown us around.

Although it was promoted as being about female engineers who assisted with the space race, the story really begins with the mathematicians of WWII who filled a temporary space, broke a hole in the wall of sexism and racial discrimination, and gradually broke down that wall, each one doing their part to leave a space for others to follow – a common motif throughout the book.

One of the few critiques I have of this book is that there were rather a lot of characters eventually, and some of the women got married and changed their names throughout the book – it would have been helpful to me to have a list with basic information about them.  However, there is already a lot packed into this book, so likely there wasn’t space!

Initially I was disappointed in the lack of photographs as well, but the ending explains clearly the lack of photos for the majority of the black women working at Langley.  The cover photograph is very important indeed.

Shetterly mentions her anxiety in writing this major book about a mostly unknown and unrecognized group in American history, especially as a first-time author.  Much like the women paving the way in West Computing, she felt the need to dot every i and cross every t, and the attention to detail shows through in the book.  This work was more than five years in the making, and Shetterly and others are still researching this topic and uncovering new information.  The book is readable and interesting but also informative – it reminds me a bit of David McCullough’s writing style.

Like his books, this one tends to the scholarly side.  There were several words I didn’t know, which is unusual.  Yet several chapters allow the reader to relate the book to everyday life, such as Model Behavior, which is about the journey of Mary Jackson’s son who, with her encouragement and coaching, experienced success at soap box derby racing.  Information about the women’s children and husbands, their hobbies and interests is interspersed throughout the book.  However, if a sentence like “If anyone could bear witness to the long-term impact of persistent action, and also to the strength of the forces opposing change, it was Dorothy Vaughn.” (p. 203) intimidates you, then I’d encourage you to try the Young Readers edition, which I assume will be a lighter read.  (I’ll eventually review that version also.)

This book is an #ownvoices in several ways.  Not only is the author a black woman, her father also worked at Langley – so she has an intimate familiarity with many of the people and places in the book.  Her authentic and scholarly voice shines through in many little details and references throughout the book, from highlighting the importance of familiar food to Katherine Johnson on a road trip to an analysis of the reactions to integration among black and white employees.

The biggest thought I had coming away from this book was that I hope Shetterly writes another book.  She mentions having to cut a lot of material in the epilogue, and I would love to read a book about Christine Darden, Gloria Rhodes Champine, or any of the other figures who are only briefly mentioned.  This book lived up to my high expectations, and I would purchase another book by Shetterly.  Definitely I plan to reread this in the future, and Husband might even read it.

Hidden Figures has justly received a great deal of praise, because it’s an important and well-written book.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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