When the movie “Hidden Figures” came out last year, chronicling the roles three African-American women played in NASA during the space race, I liked it so much, I watched it twice.
So, I was predisposed to like MARGARET AND THE MOON (Alfred Knopf, 2017), a picture book written by Dean Robbins and illustrated by Lucy Knisley. It describes how Margaret Hamilton, a Caucasian woman, used her prodigious math and computer skills to help land Apollo 11 on the moon during a time when most mathematicians and scientists were male.
The book starts when Margaret was small, talking about all the things Margaret wondered about, including math and, eventually, computers. She used that knowledge to get a job at NASA. Soon, she was programming computers so they would know how to respond if anything went wrong during a mission. As Robbins writes:
“Margaret thought of everything that could happen on a trip to the moon. Would the spacecraft go off course? Would it lose power? Would an astronaut make a mistake? Margaret wrote code to tell the computers how to solve these problems. She worked her way through the steps just as she used to do in math class.”
Of course, the book culminates with an astronaut in Apollo 11 entering a command that makes the computer start performing too many tasks. And, of course, Margaret had thought of this potential problem, so the computer ignores the extra tasks and focuses on completing a successful lunar landing.
This book works for a variety of reasons.
The art. Knisley is a comic book artist, and her picture book art is amazing. She does a great job rendering the night sky and shows complex calculations and constellations with a remarkable simplicity, often woven into other artwork or in the background. My favorite two-page spread is one that simply says: “She gazed at the night sky in wonder.” It shows Margaret on the ground, looking up at all the different constellations. And, I’m an endpaper fiend, so I especially like how those were handled. The front endpapers show a drawing of a young Margaret looking out her bedroom window at the night sky with a full moon in the distance. The back endpapers show actual photographs of Margaret both as a child and at work at MIT and NASA and in an Apollo command module.
The writing. Margaret’s story is complicated, and Robbins does a great job distilling everything down into simple sentences that are easily understood. In his dedication, Robbins thanks Margaret for sharing her life story and patiently explaining the technical details of her work. I can only imagine how fascinating those conversations were. And, as Robbins tells the story, he has a theme — wonder — that carries through the book and holds everything together. As a child, Margaret wondered about many things. She gazed at the sky in wonder. She helped do something truly wonderful.
This book should appeal to kids who like solving problems, those who wonder themselves and those who hope to do big things.