Reading Time for Math People (or even if you aren’t)


Hidden Figures as a book and movie

I wanted to see Hidden Figures when it hit the theaters, but I had no idea until the film started that it’s set in my hometown.

I was thrilled when I read the book because, in order create the setting, the author, Margot Lee Shetterly, went all the way back to World War 2 to explain the importance of Southeastern Virginia to the military. It also gave me the backstory for a lot of things that I knew to be true in my area, most specifically, that we have a large African American middle class. I knew that it had something to do with the federal government integrating before Virginia did, but that’s all really.

Here is a guide to enjoying this amazing story, what to expect when movies are made from nonfiction books, and finally, some reading about math and math education I hope you will appreciate regardless of your feelings about the subject!

Mary Jackson, who desegregated Hampton High School to study engineering, is shown on the far right of this 1950’s photo.

Mary Jackson, who desegregated Hampton High School to study engineering, is shown on the far right of this 1950’s photo.

Have you ever wondered why movies are so different from books?

How closely to follow a book is a serious decision, but sometimes it’s necessary. It’s easier to bring some stories to the screen than others. Sometimes the director simply has a different vision, and sometimes lots of things have to be changes to convey certain themes on a screen.

It’s particularly hard when the story being told is based on true events.

Real life is messy. There are a lot of people involved, and real events typically happen over a long period of time. Then there are the stylistic conventions. This type of book is sometimes written by an academic and sometimes by a reporter or professional nonfiction writer, but either way, typically the style involves a lot of back story.

In a typical structure, the author starts with a key scene or pivotal moment in the first chapter and then, in the second chapter, either tells the backstory, that can go back before the birth of the main personalities in the book, or can jump to what might seem like an unrelated subject. If you are short on time or just don’t like that much detail, it can be tedious. But you’re still interested in the main story…either because you want to know more than the movie can squeeze in, or perhaps this book hasn’t even been made into a movie yet.

What to do?

One method is do what I call Puddle Jumping, where you just jump ahead to the sections that interest you. Usually these books have a pretty clear Table of Contents or you can just read the beginnings of the chapter or section. Just keep in mind that if you jump forward, you may have to jump back later to pick up any information that turned out to be important. Possibly it’s good to just accept from the beginning that there will be references you don’t quite get. I would just stick with the story at hand, then decide later whether you still want the extra detail enough to locate it later.

Dorothy Vaughn taught herself computer programming to save the jobs of the West Computers.

Dorothy Vaughn taught herself computer programming to save the jobs of the West Computers.

But even that might be too much. If you are thinking, “Ugh, I don’t want to think that much!”, don’t worry. There is a solution for you. It’s called “Young Readers’” editions.

Are Young Reader’s Editions just for Kids?

The Young Readers’ edition is a fairly new trend (I think) that is designed to capitalize on the publicity for modern nonfiction books, especially when there is a movie tie in, and cheaply expand readership and ultimately sell more books. I personally also consider them a godsend for teachers, who work hard to make the education they provide relevant and are also required to teach nonfiction up to 50% of the time. You know kids are automatically more interested when you present them with a book that they have seen advertised in movie form.

But the original nonfiction books, meant for adults, are simply too long to be used in schools. It’s not that the kids “can’t” read it, its just that the books are too long and would take too much time away from other important and necessary topics in the curriculum. Schools and classes have limited time, students have busy schedules, and choices have to be made.

But adults are busy too, so I wondered if these books would also be interesting for adults. Because Hidden Figures is so popular, I thought I’d use this book as an experiment. I’d read the full length version right after seeing the movie, so I borrowed the Young Reader’s edition and gave it a go.

Above you see the original, full length edition of Hidden Figures. Below is the Young Readers’ edition. Note that it is designed to appeal to readers of all ages.

I am a particular fan of this book because it is set in my hometown.  As soon as I saw the place on the screen in the movie (Hampton, Virginia), I knew I was going to read the whole thing!  I especially enjoyed the full length book because it delved into the background of my hometown during World War 2 and explained more than I already knew.  All of these years, I never knew where the name of the main thoroughfare in Hampton, Mercury Boulevard, came from!

  But there is no question that the original book is far too long for classes to get through, and the film is good, but really not historically accurate or detailed enough for students old enough to understand it. The film makes for good entertainment, but it isn’t appropriate for school.


I enjoyed the Young Reader’s edition of Hidden Figures, and I found it entertaining for an afternoon’s read, even though I already knew the story. The beginning chapters of the book seemed the most hackneyed and read just a bit like a school textbook. To be fair, there is A LOT of background information in the first chapters about the Hampton Roads/Tidewater area, Jim Crow Virginia, the Civil Rights demonstrations, and the backgrounds of the three personalities who are the focus of the book. Whittling that information, which was mostly not included in the movie, down to an appropriate length, while maintaining continuity and retaining key information, could not have been an easy task. At any rate, as the story proceeds, the writing style smooths out as well, and I found myself engaged. Although I was aware that the simplified writing was making my task as a reader much easier, I wasn’t bored or distracted by it. If anything, I was enjoying rereading a story I like.


After all of this, I went back to the film and watched it again.  I knew that the film had altered the story considerably.  With a story this long and complex, it’s a necessity.  The unity of time and place that you learned about with the Greek playwrights, if you did, hold true. We don’t keep a play to a period of 24 hours the way the Greeks did, but still, the story can’t be too complex.  And yes, there are some things added for dramatic effect or to visually make a point.  In her autobiography (right), Johnson says that she never did go out of her way to go to the “Colored” ladies room at Langley, and certainly the plot point where the Kevin Costner character rips the Colored Bathroom sign off the wall is far fetched when you consider how far from his work space this room was located, but OK, this is a movie and the scene makes its point. Anyway, the movie is quite enjoyable, and at the end of it all, I think it works just fine as a separate, but complementary text to the books.  In the film, more so than in the books, the Black characters depicted as able to make strides because they played on the national interest in the space race, and they were able to build links with their Southern neighbors on this point, which is highlighted in the very first scene of the film when a white police officer escorts the three NASA employees to work so that they won’t be late.   

The contributions of the Black community had already helped to narrow the gap between white and black people during World War 2, and one of the biggest points of the film is that the space race helped continue to close it.  I found myself getting excited once again even though I know perfectly well what was going to happen at the end of the movie.  I felt happy about being an American and also very happy that we managed to move past that time without the south being destroyed yet again.

Finally, if I might add, an aspect of the Civil Rights movement that we don’t think about much are the contributions made by the three women highlighted in the movie and thousands more like them, who kept themselves, their families, and their communities moving forward all the time by being decent people, contributing to the community, and working hard. Of course the people who were on the front lines of the movements made important contributions, but the rights that people sadly had to fight so hard to get would have meant nothing if families like these had not been preparing all the time.

As I mentioned, I grew up in this area, and the types of families I saw in this movie were the same type of African American families I have known all my life. I had no clue what life was like for them; because of the situation (our dads all mostly worked for the Federal government), the gap between us and them was barely discernible to me. In fact, I knew some of my Black classmates were involved in activities, such as debutant balls, that were foreign to us. Wow, I have renewed respect. They handled a lot of mess so well that I was right there and didn’t know it was happening.



Look below for how to get your kids (and maybe yourself) as excited about math as the women in Hidden Figures!

Long Read:

Hidden Figures, full version

Sustained Reads:

Mathematical Mindsets

Limitless Minds

Short Reads:

Shooting the Moon; Hidden Figures, Young Reader’s Version

Quick Reads:

Modern High School Math Should be about Data Science—Not Algebra 2

“Aristotle’s Three Unities” (below)

What does the term “Young Readers” mean?

“Young Readers” means that the book is appropriate for anyone who cannot or doesn’t want to read the full-length edition of the book. The books are generally aimed at an audience of readers about 10 and up.

The content of the book is “abridged”, or cut, to include only the most important points. The sentence structure and the vocabulary are simplified. These changes help capable readers go faster and anyone who would struggle with the original version (which are generally written at a pretty high reading level for anyone, including adults), and more easily accessible to other readers, such as younger people or English language learners. They also allow people from different groups or generations to “join the conversation” about the books subject.

Usually the rewrites are done by the original author or at least under that person’s supervision, which helps assure quality and accuracy.

Click here to see my Pinterest Board for more Popular Adult Nonfiction Titles with Young Readers’ Editions!

Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine G. Johnson

The strength of Ms. Johnson’s book is that she goes into a lot of detail about what it was like to grow up in West Virginia during the Jim Crow era.  What I had thought about before, and I think most people understand, is that the Jim Crow laws obviously were not “separate but equal”, but I never realized how bad things were.

I think the vestiges of Jim Crow that remained when I was growing up in the early 70’s represented much better conditions in my local area than what would be found in most places. I actually grew up not far from Hampton, Virginia, and we also had a lot of federal employees, a situation that had probably evened things out a little. I attended one school that had been a Black school before integration, and that and several other formerly Black schools in my locality are still in use in 2019. When I was young, Black and White people lived in separate neighborhoods and went to separate churches, but there was little or no gap in conditions.

Ms. Johnson explains how difficult every aspect of life was, but she also goes into some details that I didn’t know: for example, that there were higher standards for Black teachers than for white.  She also explains how the whole family had to move for she and her siblings to have access to high school educations, and she went into how families endured long separations in order for various members to follow job and academic opportunities.  I think what she has to say both about her father and her two husbands (she was widowed early) are important to show Black young men what people had to go through and also how they overcame those challenges.  Johnson’s father reminds me quite a bit of the men in my own family: they are all smart people but without a lot of formal education, but they always have a way to earn what they need.  Although this book is meant for adolescent readers, it is an enjoyable Short Read for an adult. 

More about Mathematics: Don’t accept the myth that mathematics is a gift

If you are interested in reading about mathematics education in general, I recommend the work of Joanne Boaler, professor at Stanford University. She proposes that everyone is capable of learning higher mathematics if children are taught properly to focus on authentic mathematical problems and concepts rather than repetition of computations and formulas. As you watch the mathematicians and engineers climb up a ladder to their giant black board in Hidden Figures, think about what might have improved your mathematical education. I know I have.

Free Read/Quick Read

Modern High School Math Should be about Data Science—Not Algebra 2 by Joanne Boaler and Steven Levitt, LA Times, Oct. 23 2019

Boaler’s work heavily draws on the work of psychologist Carol Dweck and the “Growth Mindset”.

I’m excited about reading Boaler’s new book.

Mathematical Mindsets (below) book is very accessible to parents and generalist (elementary school) teachers as well as math specialists. There is also an excellent online course with Prof. Boaler through Stanford for about $100.

Desk Set is a Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movie featuring a computer, with female programmers, similar to the real one first installed at Langley in the early 60’s.

Free Read/Quick Read

Check out this article from “Performer Stuff” on the unities of time and place in Greek drama to learn more about the concept.

Cover Photo:

Approach to Langley Air Force Base in 2006 Lieutenant Colonel Dirk Smith, 94th Fighter Squadron commander, and Major Kevin Dolata, 94th Fighter Squadron assistant director of operations, turn in on final approach to Langley Air Force Base to deliver the first F-22A Raptors to be assigned to the 94th Fighter Squadron March 3, 2006. The 94th is the second squadron at Langley to receive the new stealth fighter. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker [Public domain]

Approach to Langley Air Force Base in 2006

Lieutenant Colonel Dirk Smith, 94th Fighter Squadron commander, and Major Kevin Dolata, 94th Fighter Squadron assistant director of operations, turn in on final approach to Langley Air Force Base to deliver the first F-22A Raptors to be assigned to the 94th Fighter Squadron March 3, 2006. The 94th is the second squadron at Langley to receive the new stealth fighter.

Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker [Public domain]

Note: This article was originally posted October 30, 2019 and was revised February 14, 2020.

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