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The Picture Book Buzz

Counting on Katherine - Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF

Excited by the trailers, I eagerly awaited the release of the movie Hidden Figures in 2017. I was blown away. It's about time these women - all of them - received the recognition of their efforts, skills, and contributions to NASA. It addressed the standards of times, without being moralistic, and showed the difference that an individual (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Al Harrison) could make by taking a stand against discrimination. Unfortunately, something still relevant today.

Helaine Becker has teamed up with the amazing illustrator - Dow Phumiruk (Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines) - to create a picture book about Katherine Johnson,.

Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13

Author: Helaine Becker

Illustrator: Dow Phumiruk

Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) (2018)

Ages: 5-9



Women scientists, NASA, astronauts, space, and mathematics


You've likely heard of the historic Apollo 13 moon landing. But do you know about the mathematical genius who made sure that Apollo 13 returned safely home?

As a child, Katherine Johnson loved to count. She counted the steps on the road, the number of dishes and spoons she washed in the kitchen sink, everything! Boundless, curious, and excited by calculations, young Katherine longed to know as much as she could about math, about the universe.

From Katherine's early beginnings as a gifted student to her heroic accomplishments as a prominent mathematician at NASA, this is the story of a groundbreaking American woman who not only calculated the course of moon landings but, in turn, saved lives and made enormous contributions to history.

Opening Lines:

Katherine loved to count.

She counted the steps to the road.

The steps up to the church.

The number of dishes she washed in the bright white sink.

The only things she didn't count were the stars in the sky. Only a fool, she thought, would try that!

Even so, the stars sparked her imagination.

What was out there?

What I Like About This Book:

I actually LOVE this book! Dow Phumiruk beautifully captures the spunky spirit, indignation, determination, wonder, and genius of Katherine Johnson. She ingeniously wraps Katherine's love of numbers into many of the illustrations and the end pages.

Text © Helaine Becker, 2018. Image © IDow Phumiruk, 2018.

I love the way the opening - of "the stars sparking her imagination" and making her yearn to know all about numbers and the universe - ties in to the back matter note that her contribution was based on "letting her imagination run free" and using the stars as guideposts to save the astronauts on Apollo 13.

Just like the movie, racial and gender discrimination is addressed (though more briefly), as things spurring Katherine on, making her "aggressive and assertive" about her abilities. It's left to the brilliant illustrations of an all-white high school, an all-black elementary, and a segregated room containing only African-American women computers, and Katherine's scenes as the sole woman in a sea of men to speak volumes about the times. and her fierce determination.

Text © Helaine Becker, 2018. Image © IDow Phumiruk, 2018.

Playing with a math pun, the title and Becker's refrain - "Count on Me" add moments of lightness. With a narrowed focus on Katherine's love of mathematics and her contributions to the space program and NASA (instead of a full-life story), Helaine Becker and Dow have created an amazing biography, of a truly remarkable woman. One which encourages all readers, young and old, to reach for their dreams.


- make a list of things you love to do and your dreams;

- read more about Katherine Johnson on NASA's site;

- try some ideas to make math fun from Scholastics (for 8-10)

- try some fun "Kitchen Math Activities," learn how fun math can be

- try some Space math activities from NASA

This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.

If you want to learn more about the illustrator, Dow Phumiruk check out our discussion this Monday - here.

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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