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In 1956, female nuclear physicist Chien-Shiung Wu worked alongside two male colleagues to disprove a commonly accepted physics principle. Just one year later, following the success of the team’s experiment, Wu’s colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize. Wu’s work, on the other hand, remained altogether unacknowledged.
For people of color and women, in scientific fields and elsewhere, the formula is a familiar one. Achievements, whether they be cardiac operations, a homemade windmill, or the first-ever line of African American hair-care products, are squelched, overlooked, and forgotten.
Not so here. Prepare to soar into space with Mae Jemison, survey watery depths with Eugenie Clark, and examine the human heart with Daniel Hale Williams; in this feature, we celebrate the contributions people of diverse backgrounds have made to science and our world.
Astronauts and Mathematicians
Astronaut Ellen Ochoa. By Heather E. Schwartz. 2017. Lerner, $26.65 (9781512434491). Gr. 3–6.
In straightforward, photo-filled chapters, this entry in the STEM Trailblazer Bio series showcases astronaut Ellen Ochoa. Ochoa is not only the first Hispanic woman in space but also an engineer with several patents under her belt, as well as the current director of the Johnson Space Center. A useful starting point for students looking for research topics.
Hidden Figures. By Margot Lee Shetterly. 2016. Harper, $16.99 (9780062662385). Gr. 5–8.
This young readers’ edition of Shetterly’s 2016 adult book introduces four African American women working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in the mid-twentieth century. Displaying sharp curiosity, early aptitude for math, and marked confidence in the face of discrimination, Mary, Katherine, Dorothy, and Christine made extraordinary contributions to science and aerospace technology today.
Joe Acaba. By Colleen Hord. 2013. Rourke, $7.95 (9781618102843). Gr. 1–4.
The story of Acaba, the first person of Puerto Rican heritage in space, will have kids looking at their teachers—and themselves—in a new light. After majoring in geology, spending two years in the Peace Corps, and becoming a teacher, Acaba applied for astronaut training. Five years later: blastoff. An engaging look at an ordinary guy who did the fantastic.
Mae Jemison. By Jodie Shepherd. 2015. Scholastic/Children’s Press, $23 (9780531205952). Gr. 1–3.
Mae Jemison is an individual of remarkable achievements—of which being the first African American woman in space is only one. An astronaut, dancer, physician, and engineer to boot, Jemison is an undeniably inspiring subject for children learning to read, and this book’s concise layout, simple sentences, and ample back matter are sure to snag their attention.
Benjamin O. Davis Jr: Air Force General & Tuskegee Airmen Leader. By Sari Earl. 2010. ABDO, $32.79 (9781604539615). Gr. 6–9.
Davis first saw an airplane in 1926; from then on, he knew he wanted to fly. Despite many forms of discrimination, he made his way through West Point, eventually leading the U.S. Army Air Force African American flying unit, the Ninety-Ninth Squadron. Complete with time line, source notes, and additional web and print sources, this is a well-written, well-designed resource for upper-middle readers.
Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee. By Marissa Moss. Illus. by Carl Angel. 2009. Tricycle, o.p. Gr. 3–5.
Moss presents the story of Maggie Gee, an Asian American pilot in the WWII Women Airforce Service. As a “WASP,” Gee was responsible for both training and transport missions. Though she’s once mistaken for a Japanese spy, prejudice never overshadows her love of flight. Based on interviews with Gee, this well-crafted picture book is as lovely as it is personal.
Talkin’ about Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman. By Nikki Grimes. Illus. by E. B. Lewis. 2002. Scholastic/Orchard, $17.99 (9780439352437). Gr. 2–5.
In a volume that looks like a picture book and reads like a series of closely related poems, Grimes offers a many-sided portrait of the first African American aviatrix, Bessie Coleman. The verse reads aloud beautifully, and Lewis’ paintings, subdued in tone and color, reflect the spirit of the writing through impressionistic portrayals. A great choice for readers’ theater.
Engineers and Architects
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. By William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. 2015. Dial, $16.99 (9780803740808). Gr. 5–8.
After a devastating famine kept 14-year-old Kamkwamba out of school, he taught himself electrical engineering and—equipped with insatiable curiosity and ample brains—succeeded in building a windmill out of junk and found materials to electrify his home. Many will find a kindred spirit in science-loving Kamkwamba—especially aspiring inventors.
Computer Engineer Ruchi Sanghvi. By Laura Hamilton Waxman. 2015. Lerner, $26.60 (9781467757942). Gr. 3–5.
Her name may not be familiar, but her work is recognizable around the world. This installment in the STEM Trailblazer Bios series chronicles the childhood, education, and career of Ruchi Sanghvi. Born in India, Sanghvi attended university in the U.S, ultimately evolving the Facebook platform and launching her own software tech company. Informative and inspiring, this fills a gap in STEM collections.
I. M. Pei: Architect of Time, Place, and Purpose. By Jill Rubalcaba. 2011. Marshall Cavendish, $23.99 (9780761459736). Gr. 7–10.
This handsome book introduces the life and work of architect I. M. Pei. In 1935, he traveled from China to the U.S. to study architecture. Since then, Pei’s designed several iconic landmarks, including the Louvre Pyramid and the Miho Museum. This is a fascinating introduction to a significant architect—and, like Pei’s buildings, its design is both functional and inviting.
Maya Lin: Thinking with Her Hands. By Susan Goldman Rubin. 2017. Chronicle, $17.99 (9781452108377). Gr. 4–7.
Maya Lin was just a senior at Yale when she won a design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Here Rubin provides a thorough examination of the notable architect, from the challenges she faced entering the architecture world as a young Asian woman to her lesser-known projects, such as Wave Field and the Confluence Project. Finely designed and endlessly compelling.
Women in Engineering. By Shaina Indovino. 2013. Mason Crest, $22.95 (9781422229262). Gr. 5–8.
From Grace Hopper, one of the country’s earliest computer engineers, to Aprille Ericsson-Jackson, an African American aerospace engineer who helped build NASA satellites, this book showcases diverse women while also introducing a wide range of engineering opportunities. Bolstered by highlighted vocabulary words and a list of related resources, this is an educational inspiration for the next generation of female leaders. From the Major Women in Science series.
George Washington Carver. By Tonya Bolden. 2008. Abrams, $18.95 (9780810993662). Gr. 3–6.
In this standout biography, Bolden presents the black scientist whose affectionate nicknames included “the Wizard of the Goober and the Yam.” Born into slavery, Carver went on to head the Tuskegee Institute’s Agriculture Department, where he developed innovative crop-rotation techniques and new uses for farm by-products and founded an industrial research laboratory.
Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker. By Kathryn Lasky. Illus. by Nneka Bennett. 2000. Candlewick, $14.99 (9780763664282). Gr. 3–5.
This excellent, richly illustrated biography tells the story of Madame C. J. Walker, a turn-of-the-century African American entrepreneur. Taking an interest in hair-care products, Walker established her own business, developed her own line of products, and used her wealth and success to help empower other African American women. Fascinating and useful.
Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions. By Chris Barton. Illus. by Don Tate. 2016. Charlesbridge, $16.95 (9781580892971). Gr. 1–4.
Meet Lonnie Johnson, kid rocket-launcher, teen robot-builder, adult NASA engineer, and inventor of the Super Soaker water toy. Documenting his perseverance in overcoming obstacles, some stemming from being African American, the narrative also spotlights Johnson’s inventive spirit as well as his hard-won success. An upbeat tribute and an inspiring addition to STEM collections.
Chien-Shiung Wu: Pioneering Physicist and Atomic Researcher. By Stephanie H. Cooperman. 2004. Rosen, $29.95 (9780823938759). Gr. 5–8.
A groundbreaking nuclear physicist, Wu was born in China in 1912. After working on the Manhattan Project, Wu also disproved a basic assumption about atom interactions. Enriched with photos, sidebars, and comprehensive back matter, this volume mixes science with the story of a woman so passionate about her subject that she rose to prominence in a field dominated by men.
Dear Benjamin Banneker. By Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illus. by Brian Pinkney. 1994. HMH, $7.99 (9780152018924). Gr. 2–4.
Born to free black parents in 1731, Benjamin Banneker grew up on their tobacco farm. Then, in his late 50s, he taught himself astronomy, wrote his own almanac—the first by an African American—and captured the attention of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Bolstered by sweeping, energetic illustrations, this is a most attractive introduction to Banneker.
The Frog Scientist. By Pamela Turner. Illus. by Andy Comins. 2011. HMH, $9.99 (9780547576985). Gr. 5–9.
Well organized and clearly written, this lively entry in the Scientists in the Field series introduces Tyrone Hayes, a biologist studying the effects of agricultural pesticides on the reproductive organs of leopard frogs. With excellent color photos, full-page diagrams, and a thorough appendix, this volume offers a vivid, realistic view of one scientist at work.
Ibn al-Haytham: The Man Who Discovered How We See. By Libby Romero. 2016. National Geographic, $3.99 (9781426325007). Gr. 1–4.
A scientist during the golden age of Muslim civilization, Ibn al-Haytham was the first to hypothesize that vision occurs when light beams travel through the lens of a human eye. Using systematic tests of his hypothesis, he created the Book of Optics, a text which is foundational to medicine today.
Percy Lavon Julian: Pioneering Chemist. By Darlene R. Stille. 2009. Capstone/Compass Point, $34.65 (9780756540890). Gr. 7–12.
The first African American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, scientific inventor Percy Lavon Julian won acclaim for his landmark work synthesizing human hormones—and his civil rights contributions. The inviting page design includes photos and boxed screens.
Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark. By Heather Lang. Illus. by Jordi Solano. 2016. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (9780807521878). Gr. 1–3.
As a Japanese American girl growing up in the 1930s, opportunities were slim for Genie. Genie embraced her scientific passion, achieving a master’s degree in zoology, and opening a laboratory where she studied sharks in their natural habitat. A fine portrait of the groundbreaking ichthyologist.
Urban Biologist Danielle Lee. By Kari Cornell. 2016. Lerner, $26.65 (9781467795296). Gr. 3–6.
Danielle Lee always enjoyed watching wildlife more than studying in classrooms, and in graduate school she discovered her ideal professional path: researching animal behavior. Today, this African American scientist works with a research team on breeding African giant pouched rats that can be used to sniff out land mines. An informative glimpse at a working scientist and role model.
Surgeons and Physicians
Daniel Hale Williams: Surgeon Who Opened Hearts and Minds. By Mike Venezia. Illus. by the author. 2010. Scholastic/Children’s Press, $28 (9780531237298). Gr. 2–4.
Daniel Hale Williams not only performed one of the first successful heart operations but also made great strides in offering top-quality medical access to African Americans. In fact, in 1891, he founded the country’s first-ever African American–owned hospital. This fun package keeps things fresh, even for reluctant readers.
Patricia Bath and Laser Surgery. By Ellen Labrecque. 2017. Cherry Lake, $8.95 (9781634723121). Gr. 2–4.
Both her wide-ranging work to make sure people, especially those in poor communities around the world, have access to good vision care, and her revolutionary role in cataract removal (she invented the Laserphaco Probe!) make Patricia Bath, an African American ophthalmologist, a memorable subject. Supplemented with excellent photos and charts, this is a solid biography for reports or browsing.
Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas. By Gwendolyn Hooks. Illus. by Colin Bootman. 2016. Lee & Low, $17.95 (9781620141564). Gr. 3–6.
In the 1940s, Vivien Thomas developed tools and techniques necessary for successful pediatric open-heart surgery. This picture book spotlights the revolutionary surgical technician as well as the challenges he faced, from the devastation of the Great Depression to incessant racial prejudice. An illuminating look at the life of a man whose innovations continue to be essential to modern medicine.
Briana Shemroske is the Books for Youth Editorial Assistant at Booklist.
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