Meet Author Margot Lee Shetterly
by Traci Swain
Using Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race or Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition in your classroom? Check out the Scholastic Book Clubs–exclusive interview with author Margot Lee Shetterly (provided both as a video and more detailed transcript) with your students to learn what went into crafting this award-winning nonfiction story of scientific and social achievement.
When Hidden Figures initially hit the shelves, Margot Lee Shetterly introduced Americans to Christine Darden, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan: a group of brilliant, dedicated African American women who were the secret behind much of NASA’s incredible success in the 1940s through the 1960s.
Watch the exclusive author interview with Margot Lee Shetterly above, and for more personal details, read the interview below about what went into crafting Margot’s acclaimed book.
This is your first book. What made you want to become a writer?
You know, I would say that it was a case of the story finding me. I’ve done a number of different things in my career. I was an investment banker. I worked in internet start-ups, in media, and, you know, I would say that I became a writer when the story found me, and the story is—in a sense, it’s my origin story. It’s a story of women I knew growing up who worked with Father, who went to school with my mother, and who just happen to be on the scene at one of the most historic, interesting, meaningful events in American history.
Your father worked at NASA Langley [Research Center], and that is where you first heard of these four women and other computers, correct?
These are women who got up every day in the morning like my dad did—went to work at NASA Langley, performed a variety of tasks on a number of different projects—the space program was one of them, supersonic aircraft was another. There were many, many different things they were working on, and they were normal people. They were people in our neighborhood. When I was growing up, I really knew them as Mrs. Johnson, who my mom saw on the weekends at the sorority or my mom had gone to school with her kids and I knew they worked at NASA, but there was nothing about them that called attention to that. They were very normal and very much a part of our community and active in many, many parts of it.
How would you describe growing up in the NASA family?
Growing up, it was just such a part of my childhood and a familiar place, you know, going to a NASA cafeteria—we got to do that with my dad. That was really exciting. They had a carnival for families every summer. They had a Christmas party. For me, what was great about it is it was an exposure at a very early age to science and technology and math and the proximity to the space program and the moon landing.
Did you have a favorite teacher, and if so, what is one way he or she encouraged you?
I am the product of public schools—very proudly. I had a number of excellent teachers—many of whom I’ve remained in touch with over the years. Honestly, I really think that my most influential teacher was Mrs. Gwedolyn Chisman [sp.], and she just passed away last year. She was my first grade teacher, and…she expected you to behave, she expected you to do your homework, and she ran her classroom as if it were a college classroom. She had very high expectations of us, and she did not accept anything less than the best that we could give. So I’m tremendously grateful for having a formative teacher like that so early in my educational career.
What were some of the considerations in writing this story for an older audience and then rewriting it for a younger audience? What was that adaptation process like?
To simplify some of the complex subject matter without making it “simple,” because it’s not a simple topic—neither the math or the racial issues, the gender issues—but I strongly feel that kids—many, many kids—are able to understand and to deal with these kinds of issues and these kinds of stories, and they want them, and so I think the challenge is how do you respect the reader—you know, the younger reader—and make it so that it suits their particular point in their development, but that you respect them in the same way that you respect an adult reader.
What do you hope that your readers will take away from reading this book?
What I really hope that they take away [is] that this is normal. We tend to think of women and African American people doing math as an anomaly—this is something that happened. These were a lot of women sitting in a room doing math. They were really smart and worked hard, but they were people who were accessible. They did not have to sacrifice having friends or having families or being a part of the community. This idea that you cannot be good at math and also have multiple other parts of your complex identity be at home with that. You know, I really hope that they see these women and they say, “You know what, I can do that too. I do all of these things and be a mathematician.”
What facts did your students learn from Margot’s books? We’d love to hear from you! Please share on social media using the hashtag #ScholasticBookClubs.
Margot Lee Shetterly is the author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she knew many of the women in Hidden Figures. She is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation fellow and the recipient of a Virginia Foundation of the Humanities grant for her research on the history of women in computing. She is also the founder of the Human Computer Project, an endeavor that is recovering the names and accomplishments of all of the women who worked as computers, mathematicians, scientists, and engineers at the NACA and NASA from the 1930s through the 1980s. She is a University of Virginia graduate, an entrepreneur, and an intrepid traveler who spent 11 years living in Mexico. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Photo by Aran Shetterly
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs