Numeric Non-fiction: Counting on Katherine and The Language of the Universe

I realise that I don’t review enough non-fiction titles on my blog, so this is something I aim to remedy during 2021. I am starting with two very different but exceptionally enjoyable books which bring the beauty of maths to the attention of primary school-aged children.

Counting on Katherine written by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

Cover image by Dow Phumiruk, published by Macmillan Children’s Books

This inspiring, authorised biography is perfectly suited to a primary school readership as it recounts the story of Katherine Johnson; a pioneer in mathematics, in the space program and in showing that women and black women deserved to be treated equally to men.

It starts with Katherine’s childhood, where her burning desire for knowledge was matched by her outstanding intellect. The support of her family is made clear as her father worked night and day to be able to afford to move his family to a town which had a high school for black students. It is so important for children today to understand the struggles for racial equality that previous generations had to face to ensure that everyone is given a fair chance in society.

As Katherine’s career progressed from maths teacher, to “human computer” at NASA, to being the mathematician who precisely calculated the trajectories of space-ship flight paths, this book highlights her constant refrain of “Count on me!”

I love that the author chooses to highlight Katherine Johnson’s diligence, determination and the satisfaction she found in complex mathematics. Her contributions to the space programme were so incredibly inspirational but the author points out that Katherine herself always insisted that she did not deserve attention as it was always a team effort. The text throughout the book is always easy to understand and is wonderfully illustrated on every page by Dow Phumiruk; the artwork really does bring the mathematics to life and wonderfully highlights Katherine Johnson’s commitment to her work.

This is a wonderful addition to any school’s library collection, providing inspiration for young mathematicians and scientists as well as representing the role of black women in the space program, which until recently had not been given the acknowledgement that these incredible STEM pioneers deserved.

The Language of the Universe written by Colin Stuart, illustrated by Ximo Abadia

Cover image by Ximo Abadia, published by Big Picture Press

This big format book sets out to highlight the beauty of mathematics and its universal nature, from being the language that everyone can understand no matter what their nationality, to its application to everything we know on our planet and beyond. It is divided into four sections: maths in the natural world; physics, chemistry and engineering; space and technology. The text is presented in short blocks, making use of different fonts and sizes to emphasise key words and always written in language that is easy to understand. The illustrations on brightly coloured backgrounds do a brilliant job of aiding the understanding of the mathematical concepts being described.

I highly recommend this book to all home, classroom and school libraries to help children understand the practical applications of maths and the examples of its manifestations in the natural world. For example, I love the way that the usefulness of prime numbers is explained in relation to their occurrence in the life-cycle of cicadas and their use in cryptography for online security.

As well as describing mathematical phenomena, this book also highlights some of the outstanding mathematicians who have made observations and constructed formulae and mathematical laws throughout history. It ends with pointing out the current and future developments in which maths will play a crucial role, thus inspiring a future generation of mathematical thinkers. It truly is an engrossing, enjoyable and informative volume which will reward readers with an enhanced understanding of the elegance and application of maths. I spent an afternoon studying it and could easily have spend much longer if I’d had time, I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone of age 8+.

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