Every library or classroom that has a collection of picture books, or a collection of books about women in science, or about blacks in science, should have a copy of Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race. It’s an important book. It’s a beautiful book. And it will change lives.
But, honestly, I don’t think it will ever be the book that a child begs to hear at bedtime every night, night after night after night. It’s not that kind of book.
It’s nonfiction. And it’s hard to do nonfiction well in a picture book. It’s especially hard to do a complex history of events involving a lot of people over a long period of time. There’s just not space to include all the facts you need, and at the same time to develop the story. Something has to give.
And in Hidden Figures, it’s the story that gives. The book is loaded with facts. Lots and lots of facts. And the story gets lost.
What I wish they’d done differently
Margot Lee Shetterly’s book for adults weaves a complex story. It is, in fact, four stories that are interlaced over a period of decades. Aristotle wouldn’t have approved. He thought that an ideal story should have a single plot, occur in a single place, and take place over a single day. Of course, nobody follows Aristotle’s rules. Stories – especially histories – are far too complicated for that.
But picture books are a medium in which less is definitely more.
Shetterly had help on the book from children’s book author Winifred Conkling. Conkling is a wonderful writer, but she doesn’t write picture books. She writes nonfiction for middle school and high school audiences.
I wish Shetterly had worked with a picture book writer. Even more, I wish the publisher had asked her to write a set of four books, one for each of the main characters. Then each book could have followed a clear narrative arc, with a complete story. And the set would have been far more compelling than this single book.
What I love
With all that said, there’s a lot to love in Hidden Figures. I love the way it begins:
Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden were good at math. Really good.
And I love the way that repeats later in the book. “Dorothy didn’t think it was impossible. She was good at math. Really good.” And later, “Mary was good at math. Really good.” That kind of refrain is perfect for a picture book.
I also love the illustrations. Laura Freeman is a fabulous illustrator. She was, I think, a perfect pick for Hidden Figures. In her hands, the women in Hidden Figures seem solid and real.
She works in some delightful details. The women’s earrings are crescent moons and stars and the planet Saturn. And in one illustration, Dorothy Vaughan is using a slide rule. Yes, I know how to use a slide rule. At least, I used to. And I should still have my father’s slide rule around here somewhere. But I don’t know if any of the children reading the book will know what it is.
Parents and teachers will appreciate the timeline, biographical notes, and other supplementary information at the back of the book.
And children who read the book will be inspired by these four black women who were good at math. Really good.
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