Counting on Katherine is a beautiful story about a woman who helped saved the astronauts of Apollo 13
Thank you for agreeing to speak to me and on your latest book, Counting on Katherine (Raincoast Books, Henry Holt and Co.), a beautiful story (both in words and pictures) of Katherine Johnson, who helped bring the doomed Apollo 13 back to Earth, among other firsts.
Q. I have never heard of Katherine Johnson before. What an amazing story. How did you find about about Katherine Johnson? Why did you want to write about her? Why is she an important person to learn about? Why did you decide to write Katherine’s story as a picture book? What did this medium offer that another did not?
A. I was writing a book for National Geographic Kids called Everything: Space when I stumbled across a short biography of Katherine Johnson on NASA’s website. I was gobsmacked. Why had we never heard about her? After all, Apollo 13 would have drifted off into space forever – forget about what those plucky male astronauts did with duct tape and a shoebox – if it weren’t for her!
Of course I knew the reason. Katherine Johnson was a woman, and a minority. I’m not the first to point out that there’s been a looooong tradition of women’s and minorities’ accomplishments being erased from the record. I’m personally sick and tired of it.
I’d already decided, at that point, to make telling amazing women’s untold stories my mission. (It’s my form of political action!) Even though I already had a file of other possible subjects for my next project, Katherine Johnson’s story jumped right to the top because it was both so dramatic – and so typical.
Katherine’s story lent itself to the picture book form because it is both easy to understand and very visual. I also like that contemporary non-fiction picture books can reach such a wide audience – everything from pre-K kids all the way up to high school age. The author’s note in the back, which provides a more detailed biography with quotations from Katherine, helps to widen that range. And the more people who learn about Katherine Johnson’s accomplishments, the better!
Q. How did you research Katherine? Were you able to interview her as well? How much information did you get about Katherine? How did you decide what to put in and what to leave out?
A. I did exhaustive research, from reading absolutely everything out there about her (at the start, there was almost nothing), watching videos and digging deep into old NASA docs to figure out what exactly it was she did. I had to learn the math myself so I could explain it.
I also got in touch with Katherine herself, which was no easy feat. She was 96 at the time, and didn’t have a public email. But I tracked down a street address I hoped was hers, and sent off a letter. I heard back from one of her daughters about a month later, and they were great. I met and interviewed them in person, and interviewed Katherine by phone.
Deciding what to put in and leave out of a manuscript is tricky. It’s more art than science. The goal is to tell a gripping story with enough detail to be helpful, but not so much as to overwhelm the narrative. I went through many drafts before I was satisfied. And then of course the editor gets her say!
Q. What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching for this book (about Katherine herself as well as in general)?
A. Katherine is an impressive human being, and not just because she is so smart and so capable. She exhibited strength, and humility, and determination, through her whole life, with a kind of unruffled fortitude that blows me away.
Q. What information did you want to put in, but had to be cut from this book?
A. I would have loved to put in more quotations from her. She is very inspirational.
Q. If there was one thing you wanted people to take away from this book, what would it be?
A. Racism and sexism are nitwit philosophies. Let’s move on now, shall we?
Q. While you weren’t hired to be a human calculator as Katherine Johnson was, you are pretty interesting yourself. According to your website, you frequently volunteer your brain for research and you are a certified pyrotechnics practitioner. How did you get involved in these interesting pastimes?
A. Pyrotechnics was research for a novel – that still remains unwritten – in which the main character grew up in a fireworks-making family. To get some hands-on experience, I signed up for a course at the famous Grucci fireworks factory in New York. It was great! I learned, however, that to actually set up a fireworks show requires not only steady hands, but very early wake ups in the morning. Since I need three cups of espresso to blast me out of bed before ten, if you want me there bright and early, it will be with shaky hands.
Therefore, pyrotechnics is not a career for me. By the way, pyrotechnics is a very sexist business. All those young guys offering to “help” me set my fuses! I had to yell “back off!” at them at the top of my lungs to get them to stop interfering with my mortars. They did 🙂
As far as the brain research goes, maybe I’m part zombie because I’ve always been fascinated by brains.
I might not have enough dough to write a cheque for a new neuroscience lab, but I have the time and opportunity to help in other ways, like being a human guinea pig.
Volunteering is also a heck of a lot of fun.
The coolest thing about the research happened when I was attending an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in California (a meeting of scientists. One of the speakers presented the actual research my brain had been in, and the scientific discoveries they had learned from the study! I got chills, seeing that payoff. It’s very rare to have that happen.)
Q. You also said on your website that “variety is the spice of life” and you are always trying new things. What are you into these days?
A. I have about 20 different books on the go, in different genres. Trying my hand at historical fiction has been a huge new challenge. Also on the new and different writing front, look for more biographies of amazing minority women, new science topics (like prehistoric life), and a sweet picture book or two.
Q. What do you want to do that you haven’t done yet?
I also love to travel and hope to cover the entire globe! This past year, I’ve been so lucky to get to Easter Island (WOW!!!!!) , Patagonia (penguins!), Northwest Territories (drove on an ice road!) Israel (kayaked on the Dead Sea!), Vietnam (ate!), and China (taught in International schools!)
Q. Is there anything you won’t try.
A. Eating bugs.
Q. Why is it important for children/youth to continually try and learn new things?
A. The minute you stop learning is the moment you start getting old.
Q. You have written a lot of books – 80 plus now – and great variety from picture books and poetry to middle grade fiction and quizzes. Do you have a favourite type of writing or style? What do you find more challenging fiction or non-fiction?
A. I find non-fiction easiest, but I think I love writing a good bit of doggerel poetry the best.
Q. Of all your books what was the hardest to write?
A. Definitely the historical fiction is the hardest by far. I’m five years into it, and not nearly done.
Q. Most enjoyable? Favourite?
A. Counting on Katherine, of course!
Q. What are you working on right now? Any dream project?
A. LOLOLOL I always have about 500 dream projects on the go…..but I do have 11 books under contract, that you can watch for between now and 2020…including pirates….robots…and another amazing mathematician!
Read my review of her latest book (September 2019) Megabugs about extinct creatures here.