Friday, June 2, 2017

Q&A with Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins, photo by David Giroux
Dean Robbins is the author of the new children's picture book Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing. He also has written Two Friends and Miss Paul and the President. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on computer expert Margaret Hamilton in your new book?

A: A couple years ago I noticed a striking photograph that had gone viral on social media. It pictures a typical-looking young woman from the 1960s, with wire-rim glasses, long hair, a stylish dress, and a charming smile. She stands next to a stack of paper that reaches over her head. 

This was Margaret Hamilton with the code she wrote for NASA’s Project Apollo as director of software programming. The viewer realizes this is no ordinary young woman, but a genius who helped get astronauts to the moon using early computer technology.

It was revelatory to learn that a woman had played such a significant role in the 1960s space program, given the male faces we’re used to seeing from that era. It occurred to me that this might be a powerful story to tell for children.

Q: How did you research her life, and what did you find out about her that particularly fascinated you?

A: There wasn’t much published information about Margaret Hamilton, so I had to start digging—something I enjoy as a longtime journalist. I tracked down her email address and wrote to see if she’d be willing to tell me her story. Margaret has little interest in self-promotion—she’s a scientist to the core, with tremendous integrity—but she was taken by the idea of a book about her life that she could read to her grandchildren.

So we spoke and exchanged emails. Margaret offered previously unreported details of her life, including her love of problem-solving from an early age. She described philosophical discussions about the universe with her father, a poetic type who encouraged her curiosity.

Margaret also explained her pioneering work with NASA. There was no road map for using computers back then, so she had to make up solutions as she went along. She had a knack for anticipating problems, and that paid off when a human error occurred right before the first moon landing in July 1969. 

The error caused the mission’s guidance computer to overload, which could have been disastrous but for Margaret’s brilliant programming. Her code allowed the computer to focus on its most important task: landing the lunar module on the moon. That incident became part of Margaret’s legend at NASA, and it forms the climax of Margaret and the Moon.

Margaret generously sent me vintage photographs and even real examples of her Project Apollo code. These images helped inspire the book’s illustrator, Lucy Knisley, who even incorporated the code in a couple of her drawings. My resourceful Knopf editor, Julia Maguire, also created a two-page spread showing the rare photos of Margaret in her childhood and NASA heyday.

Q: As a woman in a male-dominated field, how did her gender affect Margaret Hamilton’s career?

A: As the book shows, Margaret was acutely aware of inequality even as a young child. She wondered why there were only daddy longlegs, so she renamed some of them “mommy longlegs.” She wondered why only boys played baseball, so she joined the local team herself. She wondered why more girls didn’t grow up to be doctors or scientists, so she studied hard in every subject at school. This determination helped her climb through the ranks in a male-dominated field, which was extraordinary in the 1960s. 

Nevertheless, Margaret remained relatively unknown for decades after her signature achievements with NASA. Today, we’ve come to realize that women’s stories have been unfairly neglected throughout history, and that’s why people were delighted to discover the viral photograph of Margaret with her stack of world-changing code. Since then she’s begun getting the attention she deserves, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom. She’ll even be part of an upcoming “Women of NASA” Lego set!

Q: Did she see the book, and if so, what did she think about it?

A: I was nervous when it came time to show Margaret the book. She had patiently told me about the technical elements of her work and her role as a software engineer—a term she coined in the early days of computer science. 

Those details would have been too complicated for the elementary school readers of Margaret and the Moon, of course, so I tried to responsibly simplify and compress the story. I worried Margaret might disapprove, but it was just the opposite. She thought the book captured the spirit of her life and work, and she was charmed by Lucy’s illustrations. I was grateful for her magnanimity!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on more nonfiction children’s picture books about heroes like Margaret Hamilton. Some are about unfamiliar people, while others focus on lesser-known angles in the lives of already famous figures. I’ve always idolized ordinary folks brave enough to stand up to powerful forces of oppression. These are the stories that inspired me as a child, and it’s a thrill to write books that might similarly inspire today’s young readers.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I thought I’d mention how the illustrations contribute to the effect in Margaret and the Moon. Lucy Knisley is a comics artist who has created witty and insightful autobiographical books like Relish and Displacement. Julia Maguire thought she might have the right touch for Margaret and the Moon, and it proved to be an inspired choice. 

Lucy brought so much of her own wry sensibility to the project, adding visual jokes that make me laugh out loud. She also created sublime images of Margaret gazing at the universe that take my breath away. In writing the story I imagined illustrations that were both playful and cosmic, and no one could have rendered that singular tone better than Lucy. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Dean Robbins, please click here.

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