January 18, 2018


Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race. By Margot Lee Shetterly, with Winifred Conkling. Illustrated by Laura Freeman. Harper. $17.99.

Mae Among the Stars. By Roda Ahmed. Illustrated by Stasia Burrington. Harper. $17.99.

     The strength of stories of disadvantages overcome lies in their ability to reach out to a wide audience. After all, practically everyone must overcome difficulties of some sort in order to succeed. A troubled family, parental disapproval, financial hardship, emotional or psychological troubles, outright poverty, religious discrimination, ethnic typecasting, being born at a time when certain fields were forbidden to certain people, and more – all these and many others are factors affecting people’s ability to do what they want to do in life and get where they want to go. Books that understand the universality of such difficulties and discuss one particular form of them in a larger context are invariably more effective at exploring their topics than ones implying that “everybody else” has things “easy” while some chosen group faces hardship that no other group ever has faced or ever could even imagine. Finding the right balance between specificity and universality seems especially difficult for authors writing about African-Americans, because while it is certainly true that black people have a unique distant history as slaves, it is untrue that they alone faced enormous legal and quasi-legal discrimination for many years: the 19th-century Know-Nothing political party was vociferously anti-Catholic, for example, and forms of anti-Oriental and anti-Italian discrimination persisted well into the 20th century. Margot Lee Shetterly did a particularly fine job of highlighting both the unique challenges facing African-Americans, especially female African-Americans, and the universality of the means by which they overcame those difficulties, in her book, Hidden Figures. Now there is a version of the book for children ages 4-8, written by Shetterly with Winifred Conkling, and it is just as good for its age group as the original was for adults. What works particularly well here is the repeated refrain that the four women on whom the book focuses – Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden – “were good at math. Really good.” It was this accomplishment, this level of knowledge, this extent of education – however difficult it may have been for the women to obtain it – that led to their recognition and participation in the early years of space exploration. They were not admitted to the inner circle of scientists and mathematicians making space travel possible because of “affirmative action” or any other appearance-based approach. They earned their way in, and if the old saying is true that a woman needs to be twice as proficient as a man in order to be considered half as good, then these four may have had to be four times as good as others to be accepted by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and its successor, NASA. It was their knowledge and ability that eventually won them that acceptance, as Hidden Figures shows again and again. Thank goodness no one was insisting on some mythical “equal treatment” based on race when human lives and gigantic sums of money were at stake in the “space race.” Instead, those involved insisted that anyone and everyone participating be super-knowledgeable, super-adept, and really, really good at math. The obstacles specifically faced by African-Americans, especially in the years of and immediately after World War II, were real and are shown clearly in this edition of Hidden Figures for young readers. But the message of the book, again and again, is that, yes, the circumstances were difficult, troubling and unfair, but instead of demanding special compensating treatment, these four women used grit, determination and tremendous skill to function, often brilliantly, in a world that would otherwise have shunted them to its periphery. An excellent story about the power of knowledge, education and ability to help lift anyone out of any difficult negative circumstances, Hidden Figures, including this version for children, is a book that reaches out to everyone who has ever felt and ever been disadvantaged in any way, showing that even severe barriers can be overcome by people who, far from requesting special treatment for irrelevant reasons, prove themselves better than the system that kept so many others like them down.

     A much easier astronomy-focused book to read, and one featuring a girl actually within the 4-8 target age range, Mae Among the Stars is also about a pioneering woman. But Roda Ahmed’s is a lesser book, precisely because it falls into the trap of making skin color its focus and never showing just how Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, overcame the difficulties of her early life and became successful in her chosen field. Indeed, Jemison was successful in her chosen fields, plural, and her story is far more inspiring than this (+++) book indicates. Jemison had degrees in both chemical engineering and medicine, and actually worked as a medical doctor for a time – and as a Peace Corps medical officer in Africa – before starting to train as an astronaut. This is a remarkable story indeed. But Ahmed simply says that as a little girl, Jemison was a “dreamer” and was encouraged by parents who told her, “If you can dream it, if you believe it and work hard for it, anything is possible.” That is a lovely sentiment, and it does make passing reference to hard work, but all readers actually see in Mae Among the Stars is a classroom setting in which the only white adult in the book disparages Jemison’s desire to be an astronaut and almost derails the little girl’s entire plan. This evil-white-people angle does nothing to help the book reach out beyond a core skin-color-based audience, and in the absence of anything in the book showing how hard and diligently Jemison worked to become, eventually, an astronaut, the scene leaves the impression that all the little girl had to do to become a big success was to avoid allowing that bad teacher to keep her from her dream. Even for very young children, this is a simplified and deeply unfortunate lesson, and it also happens to be untrue – certainly in Jemison’s case. Although Mae Among the Stars appears to be well-intentioned, its strictly skin-color-based focus and its failure to address the importance of long, hard work and attention to education and knowledge prevent the book from carrying a widely useful message. And that is really too bad, because Jemison’s story is a wonderful and inspirational one that, like the stories of the women in Hidden Figures, is really about the tremendous powers of learning and of hard work – powers that can and do bring success to people of both genders and of any race, color or creed.

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