Katherine Johnson broke the barriers for her gender and race at a time when Black women were often relegated to one of two jobs: school teacher or domestic worker. But her dad taught her to remember that while she was no better than anyone else, nobody else was better than her. That philosophy stayed with her as she went to high school, which most Black children of her time were not able to do, attended and graduated from college, and went to work for the agency that became NASA, computing figures for space travel. The story of Johnson’s life and other women like her became known with the release of the book and movie, Hidden Figures. She tells her own story in Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson.
Geared to readers aged 9 and up, Reaching for the Moon is both history lesson and personal story. Johnson talks about her family’s struggle for racial equality in the Jim Crow era. The town in West Virginia where she grew up was segregated into White and Black communities, with separate schools, restaurants, and other public services. Her parents emphasized that education was the way to break through the poverty that many in her community experienced, and they sacrificed to put each of their children through high school and college.
Even with her advanced degree Johnson found the only professional avenue open to her was that of school teacher. But a 1950s expansion in space exploration meant that race and gender barriers became less rigid, allowing her to hire on as a human computer, which was someone who solved math equations in the time before machines were capable of the task. Throughout her career, Johnson kept to her simple principle that she was no better than anybody else, and nobody else was better than her. It helped her win respect of her co-workers and increasing responsibility.
Told with candor in a conversational tone, reading Reaching for the Moon is like sitting down with a friend to hear a fascinating story. I highly recommend it for readers both young and old.
The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.