Thursday, August 2, 2018

Q&A with Helaine Becker

Helaine Becker is the author of the new children's picture book Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13. Becker's many other books for kids include A Porcupine in a Pine Tree and You Can Read. She lives in Toronto.

Q: Why did you decide to write a children's picture book about the mathematician Katherine Johnson?

A: I was working on another book about space for National Geographic when I stumbled across a brief snippet on line about Katherine Johnson. This was well before Hidden Figures came out, so there was almost nothing out there about her. I was smitten. I wanted to make sure everyone else out there knew how amazing she was!

Throw in the mix that I am a staunch feminist and sick and tired that women's accomplishments  - minorities too - are continuously erased from the record. I wanted to set the record straight.

Q: How did you research the book?

A: Katherine Johnson was 96 years old at that time. It wasn't easy to find her - she didn't have a blog, or a Facebook account, or a public email. But I definitely wanted her blessing for this book, and the chance to interview her too!

It took some deep diving into the bowels of the web to triangulate and find a snail mail address I thought might be hers. I sent off a letter, and was delighted when I got one back about a month later!

I interviewed Katherine by phone, and met and interviewed her daughters at an award ceremony at the National Women's History Museum, where Katherine was being given a de Pizan Award for lifetime achievement. I also did research on the NASA website and read technical articles so I could understand exactly what Katherine did in her job.

Q: What do you think Dow Phumiruk's illustrations add to the book?

A: There wouldn't be a book at all without Dow's stunning images. Her pictures are not only beautiful, but smart, and subtle, and deep.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Katherine Johnson's story?

A: One - that injustice is real, and that we all must fight against it to insure everyone has equal opportunity to achieve and contribute. And two, that you - YOU - can do wonderful things too if you are willing to work hard and be persistent.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: You know I'm always working on a million things at once! I'm excited that my sweet picture book, Sloth at the Zoom, will be published this month by Owlkids. This is another story of persistence. I wrote the first draft of this story about mindfulness in 2004. It took 14 years to bring to life!

I also have four more biographies about astonishing women in the pipeline. And a couple of books about dinosaurs! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Helaine Becker. 

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