Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Numbered Among The Most Notable

With the reading of each picture book biography, our lives are enriched.  For now, even if we had heard of the selected individual previously, we know more.  We understand their youth.  We understand those who supported them in following their passions and goals.  We understand the obstacles they overcame.  We understand the power of a single dedicated and determined individual.

On November 24, 2015 President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who worked at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) during the historical time period when Americans first went to space.  Her contributions are immeasurable.  Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 (Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt And Company, June 19, 2018) written by Helaine Becker with illustrations by Dow Phumiruk is an informative and moving tribute to an extraordinary woman.

Katherine loved to count.

Wherever she looked and whatever she did, numbers were a part of it.  Fascinated by the stars and beyond, this little girl wanted to learn as much as possible about everything in our world.  She excelled in school moving ahead by three grades!

When most students her age were entering junior high school, Katherine could go to high school.  Segregation tried to stop her.  Her father refused to accept those barriers.

In high school her love of mathematics grew stronger.  After college she became an elementary teacher.  (Choices were limited for women.)  Her dream of being a research mathematician simmered in her soul, though.  In the 1950s NACA (National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics) was looking for women, all women, to hire as mathematicians.  In their second year of hiring Katherine was selected.

As a computer, a human calculator of numbers, Katherine rose to the top.  Her computations of the arc a rocket ship would take from takeoff to landing were lauded.  She was promoted to participate in one project after the other.  It was her re-calculations in the face of the blast Apollo 13 suffered in space which lead to the successful landing. Katherine lived (is living) her dream.

With simple phrases in the beginning of the narrative author Helaine Becker supplies readers with an inviting rhythm.  We willingly step into the life of Katherine Johnson.  How many of us have looked to the stars?  This is an instant connection.

 With each noted instance in the chronicle of Katherine Johnson's life, we find ourselves inwardly cheering her successes.  In the telling of these the research conducted by Helaine Becker is clearly evident.  She also ties multiple scenarios together with the words

count on me.

Additionally in offering an explanation of how the trajectory of a rocket ship works, we have a greater comprehension of the value of Katherine's work.  Here is a passage.

Mercury's missions were going
to be dangerous.  So dangerous that
even the project's star astronaut,
John Glenn, refused to fly unless
Katherine okayed the numbers.

"You can count on me," she said.

Glenn's spacecraft, Friendship 7
orbited Earth three times and
returned home safely.  Glenn became
a national hero. 

Great care in design and layout was given by illustrator (and author) Dow Phumiruk as initially seen on the front of the dust jacket.  Faint lines of graph paper are discernible beneath the hues of blue.  Tiny orbits (look at the details there) circle the large moon brimming with calculations.  Everything about young Katherine speaks to the woman she will become.  Look at her stance and the expression on her face, knowledgeable, curious and full of grace.

To the left, on the back, an interior image fills the page.  We gaze down at Katherine looking out a window in her home at night, imagining all the wonders held in the universe.  Look at the delicate images placed among the stars.  On the book case pale blue graph paper on either side of a red spine displays intricate calculations.  Careful observers will note the repetition of this on the opening and closing endpapers.  In the first young Katherine is shown standing on the stool seen on the front of the dust jacket.  Her back is to us as she performs one of numerous calculations on a chalkboard.

Beneath the text on the title page, an older Katherine works as a computer.  Each of the images, rendered

digitally in Adobe Photoshop with scans of watercolors and textures

spans either one or two pages.  Within those illustrations, Dow Phumiruk may insert other small pictures to place emphasis on pacing and a particular point in the narrative.  Each visual follows into the next seamlessly.

One of my many favorite illustrations spans two pages.  It is during the time after the Apollo 13 explosion.  Katherine received a call for help.  The elements in this image have a geometric layout.  Across the top triangular shaped ceiling tile is the backdrop for Katherine, working with determination etched on her face, at a drafting table and calculating the changes.  The base of the desk is white providing a place for the text.  To the left, in a second shape, space is depicted with several orbital paths around the moon, to and from Earth. The damaged ship is part of this scenario.

It's a guarantee individuals will find their souls swelling with respect after reading Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 written by Helaine Becker with illustrations by Dow Phumiruk.  This title honors a true American hero.  I can't imagine a professional or personal bookshelf without a copy of this book.  At the close of the book the author includes More About Katherine and Sources.  One of the sources is from The Makers Project.

To learn more about Helaine Becker and Dow Phumiruk please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Helaine maintains a blog here. Both Helaine and Dow have accounts on Twitter.  Dow has an account on Instagram.  Debbie Ridpath Ohi, author and illustrator, interviews both Helaine and Dow about this book on her site, Inkygirl.  At the publisher's website you can view interior images.  Please enjoy the book trailer.

I know you will enjoy visiting Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the titles selected this week by those participating in the 2018 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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