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Veronica Miller Jamison On 'A Computer Called Katherine'


Katherine Johnson grew up counting the stars. And as an adult, she helped steer astronauts toward those stars with her precise and elegant calculations. "A Computer Called Katherine" is a new illustrated book for young readers about Katherine Johnson. It's written by Suzanne Slade and illustrated by Veronica Miller Jamison, an accomplished artist and former colleague of ours here at NPR. In fact, she was an intern on this very program.

Veronica Miller Jamison joins us now from the studios of WHYY in Philadelphia. Veronica, thanks so much for being with us.

VERONICA MILLER JAMISON: Hi, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: I - when you were with us, I didn't even know you drew.

JAMISON: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah. I didn't do it as much as I do now, obviously. But it's always been a thing I've done ever since I was small.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you about this wonderful book. Katherine Johnson might be familiar to obviously a lot of Americans who saw the film, a lot of people around the world who saw the movie "Hidden Figures." I gather she's now 100 years old. She just had a NASA facility in her native West Virginia named after her, a wonderful life story. How much of it did you know before you began the book?

JAMISON: Well, I did see "Hidden Figures." And that's what made me fascinated by her story. And what's interesting is that when I saw "Hidden Figures," I was so blown away by it and inspired by it that I came home and painted a scene from it, just, you know - fan art is what they call it - and posted it on Twitter. And that's how I got connected with the editor who was working on this project.

SIMON: I love your illustration of young Katherine looking up at the stars and seeing equations and parabolas in them. What did you want to capture in her face?

JAMISON: So when I read the story about how she was so fascinated with numbers as a child, it reminded me of how - when I was a kid and what my imagination looked like to me. And for me, it was colors and paints and figures and fashion and all of that. And so I was recalling how vibrant a child's imagination could be.

And I thought about, well, what does that look like when the child's imagination runs around numbers and equations and solving problems? So I just imagined her as a little girl seeing these numbers, these figures kind of swirling around her world because she counted everything. She made equations out of everything. And just that's kind of the way she seemed to have looked at the world when she was young.

SIMON: Yeah. And then how did you decide to illustrate the way she calculated to guide spaceships? It occurred to me when I saw those illustrations you had to know some math for that.

JAMISON: Oh, well, luckily (laughter) Suzanne, the author, is an actual rocket scientist. And she did a lot of research about what equations, what math would have applied to what problems that Katherine was solving at a particular time. So we had a lot of research to guide us and to say, OK, if she was working at Langley in Virginia, what kind of problems would she have been working on? NASA has, like, a treasure trove of documents about, you know, the equations and the problems that they solved. Using those as reference for the art is what we did.

SIMON: I don't mean to put you on the spot, Veronica. But is there anything you learned here that is of remote pertinence to your life now as an illustrator?

JAMISON: No, absolutely. Absolutely. The coolest thing about this project was how collaborative it was with the editor and the art director and also the history and the research. So in the newsroom, we have to research to make sure we get the facts right and that we're presenting the right thing. And honestly, the research part of it was my favorite part because you make these discoveries about how she was as a child, her relationship with her parents, the kind of equations that she used in her career. It adds texture and layers to the story.

You know, when you're working in radio, you can add that with sound and with the writing and with, you know, your soundbites. In illustration, you can add that with the artwork, with layering with different types of art, with different sources of images that you can put into the artwork. So nothing was lost, (laughter) if that's what you were asking me.

SIMON: You are as sharp as ever.

JAMISON: (Laughter).

SIMON: That's an amazing answer. Mercy. I'm in awe. Thank you.

JAMISON: (Laughter) You're welcome.

SIMON: Thank you. Do you hope that reading this book about Katherine Johnson and seeing your wonderful illustrations can set something off in young readers?

JAMISON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there is a huge push to get more girls and more children of color into STEM, which is very important in getting those young minds involved in thinking about, you know, math and science and how that works in the world and how it can make the world a better place. And I hope that children see the writing too and think the same thing about telling stories. And I hope they see the art too, and they think the same thing about painting and making art because, to me, all of it is crucial in - not to sound cliche, but it's all crucial in making this world kind of a brighter, better place.

SIMON: "A Computer Called Katherine," an illustrated book for young readers about Katherine Johnson, is written by Suzanne Slade and illustrated by the peerless Veronica Miller Jamison.

JAMISON: (Laughter).

SIMON: Veronica, thanks so much for being with us.

JAMISON: Thanks so much, Scott. It was nice to talk to you.