Black History Month Book Recommendations

Black History Month Book Recommendations

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Happy Black History Month! We are excited to share some of our favorite books by and/or about Black scientists and science fiction protagonists. Our list spans multiple genres, so there is a book for everyone to enjoy!

A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Streets to the Stars - by Hakeem Oluseyi and Joshua Horwitz (2021)

Genre: Biography

From Penguin Random House:

Navigating poverty, violence, and instability, a young James Plummer had two guiding stars—a genius IQ and a love of science. But a bookish nerd is a soft target, and James faced years of bullying and abuse. As he struggled to survive his childhood in some of the country’s toughest urban neighborhoods in New Orleans, Houston, and LA, and later in the equally poor backwoods of Mississippi, he adopted the persona of “gangsta nerd”—dealing weed in juke joints while winning state science fairs with computer programs that model Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Once admitted to the elite physics PhD program at Stanford University, James found himself pulled between the promise of a bright future and a dangerous crack cocaine habit he developed in college. With the encouragement of his mentor and the sole Black professor in the physics department, James confronted his personal demons as well as the entrenched racism and classism of the scientific establishment. When he finally seized his dream of a life in astrophysics, he adopted a new name, Hakeem Muata Oluseyi, to honor his African ancestors.

Alternately heartbreaking and hopeful, A Quantum Life narrates one man’s remarkable quest across an ever-expanding universe filled with entanglement and choice.

Staff member Audrey Lengel recommends this book: I practically read this whole memoir in one day; I couldn’t put it down. This vulnerably-written story highlights the importance of curiosity - both in and out of academia - and the power of an encyclopedia set at the right place and the right time. 

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Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Chasing Grit, Grace, and Second Chances - by Leland Melvin (2017)

Genre: Biography

From HarperCollinsPublishing:

In this revelatory and moving memoir, a former NASA astronaut and NFL wide receiver shares his personal journey from the gridiron to the stars, examining the intersecting roles of community, perseverance and grace that align to create the opportunities for success.

Leland Melvin is the only person in human history to catch a pass in the National Football League and in space. Though his path to the heavens was riddled with setbacks and injury, Leland persevered to reach the stars.

While training with NASA, Melvin suffered a severe injury that left him deaf. Leland was relegated to earthbound assignments, but chose to remain and support his astronaut family. His loyalty paid off. Recovering partial hearing, he earned his eligibility for space travel. He served as mission specialist for two flights aboard the shuttle Atlantis, working on the International Space Station.

In this uplifting memoir, the former NASA astronaut and professional athlete offers an examination of the intersecting role of community, determination, and grace that align to shape our opportunities and outcomes. Chasing Space is not the story of one man, but the story of many men, women, scientists, and mentors who helped him defy the odds and live out an uncommon destiny.

As a chemist, athlete, engineer and space traveler, Leland’s life story is a study in the science of achievement. His personal insights illuminate how grit and grace, are the keys to overcoming adversity and rising to success.

Staff note: As librarians, we know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but come on. This is a spectacular cover.

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Sisters in Science: Conversations with Black Women Scientists on Race, Gender, and Their Passion for Science - by Diann Jordan (2006)

Genre: Biography

From Purdue University Press:

This is the first book of interviews with prominent black women scientists across the United States. These black women scientists are pioneers in their chosen scientific profession and represent a broad spectrum of disciplines, ages, and geographical locations. Each interview allows the reader to delve into the soul of the scientist, to experience her challenges, and to witness her triumphs despite obstacles.

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Holding The Knife's Edge: Journeys of Black Female Scientists - by Thato Motlhalamme and Evodia Setati (2020)

Genre: Biography

From Quickfox Publishing:

To be born in a developing country is like competing in a race with your arms tied behind your back. To be born a female is to compete with your arms tied behind your back and blindfolded. An African child faces many barriers to education, health and social welfare. Yet, despite all these hurdles, some children grow up to become industry leaders in fields that seemed beyond reach in their childhood.

Authors Thato Motlhalamme and Evodia Setati follow the journeys of 14 award-winning and pioneering black women in Science, from their childhoods and education to their arrival in the upper echelons of various organisations, achieved through innovation, academic excellence, social intelligence, authentic leadership and tenacity. The humble rural beginnings of some of these women did not limit intellectual growth, but rather stimulated creative, out-of-the-box thinking, which has served them well in their respective industries and businesses. 

These remarkable stories tell of a deep hunger for knowledge, a determination and commitment to succeed, and a work ethic that ensures success. The book includes full colour profile illustrations and tips for success for those who dream of following a career in the sciences. Contributors include: Mamokgethi Phakeng, Keolebogile Shirley Motaung, Vhonani Netshandama, Nomusa Dlamini, Tebello Nyokong, Patience Mthunzi-Kufa, Mmantsae Diale, Rapela Maphanga, Muthoni Masinde, Nox Makunga, Nolwazi Mkize, Ncoza Dlova, Refilwe Nancy Phaswana-Mafuya and Salome Maswime.

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The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe - by Stephon Alexander (2016)

Genre: Biography

From Basic Books:

More than fifty years ago, John Coltrane drew the twelve musical notes in a circle and connected them by straight lines, forming a five-pointed star. Inspired by Einstein, Coltrane put physics and geometry at the core of his music.

Physicist and jazz musician Stephon Alexander follows suit, using jazz to answer physics' most vexing questions about the past and future of the universe. Following the great minds that first drew the links between music and physics-a list including Pythagoras, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, and Rakim — The Jazz of Physics reveals that the ancient poetic idea of the ‘Music of the Spheres,’ taken seriously, clarifies confounding issues in physics.

The Jazz of Physics will fascinate and inspire anyone interested in the mysteries of our universe, music, and life itself.

Review by Physics Today

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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race - by Margot Lee Shetterly (2016)

Genre: History of Science

From HarperCollins Publishers

The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space—a powerful, revelatory history essential to our understanding of race, discrimination, and achievement in modern America.

A bestseller about the black women who worked for NASA as mathematicians (known as “human computers”). After World War II, NASA employed Black women as computers but segregated them in the “West Computing” group. The book chronicles the lives of a handful of these women through the Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, and the Space Race.

Staff member Joanna Behrman breaks down the book vs the movie in this blog post from March 2021. Both the book and the movie are definitely worth checking out.  

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We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program - by Richard Paul and Steven Moss (2015)

Genre: History of Science

From the University of Texas Press:

The Space Age began just as the struggle for civil rights forced Americans to confront the long and bitter legacy of slavery, discrimination, and violence against African Americans. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson utilized the space program as an agent for social change, using federal equal employment opportunity laws to open workplaces at NASA and NASA contractors to African Americans while creating thousands of research and technology jobs in the Deep South to ameliorate poverty. We Could Not Fail tells the inspiring, largely unknown story of how shooting for the stars helped to overcome segregation on earth.

Richard Paul and Steven Moss profile ten pioneer African American space workers whose stories illustrate the role NASA and the space program played in promoting civil rights. They recount how these technicians, mathematicians, engineers, and an astronaut candidate surmounted barriers to move, in some cases literally, from the cotton fields to the launching pad. The authors vividly describe what it was like to be the sole African American in a NASA work group and how these brave and determined men also helped to transform Southern society by integrating colleges, patenting new inventions, holding elective office, and reviving and governing defunct towns. Adding new names to the roster of civil rights heroes and a new chapter to the story of space exploration, We Could Not Fail demonstrates how African Americans broke the color barrier by competing successfully at the highest level of American intellectual and technological achievement.

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African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement - by Vincent J. Intondi (2015)

Genre: History of Science

From Stanford University Press:

Well before Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out against nuclear weapons, African Americans were protesting the Bomb. Historians have generally ignored African Americans when studying the anti-nuclear movement, yet they were some of the first citizens to protest Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Now for the first time, African Americans Against the Bomb tells the compelling story of those black activists who fought for nuclear disarmament by connecting the nuclear issue with the fight for racial equality.

Intondi shows that from early on, blacks in America saw the use of atomic bombs as a racial issue, asking why such enormous resources were being spent building nuclear arms instead of being used to improve impoverished communities. Black activists' fears that race played a role in the decision to deploy atomic bombs only increased when the U.S. threatened to use nuclear weapons in Korea in the 1950s and Vietnam a decade later. For black leftists in Popular Front groups, the nuclear issue was connected to colonialism: the U.S. obtained uranium from the Belgian controlled Congo and the French tested their nuclear weapons in the Sahara.

By expanding traditional research in the history of the nuclear disarmament movement to look at black liberals, clergy, artists, musicians, and civil rights leaders, Intondi reveals the links between the black freedom movement in America and issues of global peace. From Langston Hughes through Lorraine Hansberry to President Obama, African Americans Against the Bomb offers an eye-opening account of the continuous involvement of African Americans who recognized that the rise of nuclear weapons was a threat to the civil rights of all people.

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NASA and the Long Civil Rights Movement - edited by Brian C. Odom and Stephen P. Waring (2019)

Genre: History of Science

From University Press of Florida:

As NASA prepared for the launch of Apollo 11 in July 1969, many African American leaders protested the billions of dollars used to fund “space joyrides” rather than help tackle poverty, inequality, and discrimination at home. This volume examines such tensions as well as the ways in which NASA’s goal of space exploration aligned with the cause of racial equality. It provides new insights into the complex relationship between the space program and the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow South and abroad.

Essays explore how thousands of jobs created during the space race offered new opportunities for minorities in places like Huntsville, Alabama, while at the same time segregation at NASA’s satellite tracking station in South Africa led to that facility’s closure. Other topics include black skepticism toward NASA’s framing of space exploration as “for the benefit of all mankind,” NASA’s track record in hiring women and minorities, and the efforts of black activists to increase minority access to education that would lead to greater participation in the space program. The volume also addresses how to best find and preserve archival evidence of African American contributions that are missing from narratives of space exploration.

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The African American Presence in Physics - by Ronald Mickens (1999)

Genre: History of Science

This recommendation is a bit different in nature from the others; it is a compilation of materials related to an exhibit prepared by the National Society of Black Physicists as part of its contribution to the American Physical Society's Centennial Celebration in 1999, edited and copyrighted by physicist and historian Ronald Mickens. You can read this entire work online, thanks to Atlanta University Center Library’s digital collections. It is also available in print form as part of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives’ Ronald E. Mickens Collection on African-American Physicists.

This work includes essays about and biographies of Black physicists, starting with Edward Bouchet and ending with modern physicists (in the 1990s). Some of the names are very well-known and others are less so. For further reading, the last two pages, called “Selected Readings on African Americans in Science,” point to many articles and books about Black physicists. NBLA acquired all of the books from this bibliography for the collection last year. 

We are lucky to have the Ronald E. Mickens photo collection in our Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Read The African American Presence in Physics here

The Alchemy of Us: how humans and matter transformed one another - by Ainissa Ramirez (2020)

Genre: History of Science

From MIT Press:

In The Alchemy of Us, scientist and science writer Ainissa Ramirez examines eight inventions—clocks, steel rails, copper communication cables, photographic film, light bulbs, hard disks, scientific labware, and silicon chips—and reveals how they shaped the human experience. Ramirez tells the stories of the woman who sold time, the inventor who inspired Edison, and the hotheaded undertaker whose invention pointed the way to the computer. She describes, among other things, how our pursuit of precision in timepieces changed how we sleep; how the railroad helped commercialize Christmas; how the necessary brevity of the telegram influenced Hemingway's writing style; and how a young chemist exposed the use of Polaroid's cameras to create passbooks to track Black citizens in apartheid South Africa. These fascinating and inspiring stories offer new perspectives on our relationships with technologies.

We featured an interview with the author, Ainissa Ramirez, on her book and her research with the Niels Bohr Library & Archives on the blog in 2020.

Staff member Corinne recommends this book: I truly enjoyed reading Alchemy in preparation for my interview with the author. Her well-researched writing brings life and warmth - even humor! - to the subject of materials science in a historical context. The book was also the 2021 winner of the AAAS/Subaru Prize for Excellence in Science Books for the Young Adult category. 

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Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excellence - by Erica N. Walker (2014)

Genre: History of Science

From SUNY Press:

Erica N. Walker presents a compelling story of Black mathematical excellence in the United States. Much of the research and discussion about Blacks and mathematics focuses on underachievement; by documenting in detail the experiences of Black mathematicians, this book broadens significantly the knowledge base about mathematically successful African Americans. Beyond Banneker demonstrates how mathematics success is fostered among Blacks by mathematicians, mathematics educators, teachers, parents, and others, a story that has been largely overlooked by the profession and research community. Based on archival research and in-depth interviews with thirty mathematicians, this important and timely book vividly captures important narratives about mathematics teaching and learning in multiple contexts, as well as the unique historical and contemporary settings related to race, opportunity, and excellence that Black mathematicians experience. Walker draws upon these narratives to suggest ways to capitalize on the power and potential of underserved communities to respond to the national imperative for developing math success for new generations of young people.

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The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred - by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (2021)

Genre: Popular Science

From Bold Type Books:

In The Disordered Cosmos, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein shares her love for physics, from the Standard Model of Particle Physics and what lies beyond it, to the physics of melanin in skin, to the latest theories of dark matter — all with a new spin informed by history, politics, and the wisdom of Star Trek.

One of the leading physicists of her generation, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is also one of fewer than one hundred Black American women to earn a PhD from a department of physics. Her vision of the cosmos is vibrant, buoyantly non-traditional, and grounded in Black feminist traditions.

Prescod-Weinstein urges us to recognize how science, like most fields, is rife with racism, sexism, and other dehumanizing systems. She lays out a bold new approach to science and society that begins with the belief that we all have a fundamental right to know and love the night sky. The Disordered Cosmos dreams into existence a world that allows everyone to experience and understand the wonders of the universe.

Staff member Maura Shapiro recommends this book: Prescod-Weinstein does an incredible job sharing her infectious love of physics while exposing systematic problems tied to the field. The care she put into this book is evident, balancing physics, memoir, and manifesto, as well as joy, pain, and inspiration. This book was important for me to read and I think it is a must read for anyone in physics. 

Review by Physics Today

WorldCat | Goodreads | Book trailer, purchasing options, and excerpts via Prescod-Weinstein

Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi & Fantasy Culture - by Ytasha Womack (2013)

Genre: Reference: Science Fiction

From Lawrence Hill Books/Chicago Review Press:

In this hip, accessible primer to the music, literature, and art of Afrofuturism, author Ytasha Womack introduces readers to the burgeoning community of artists creating Afrofuturist works, the innovators from the past, and the wide range of subjects they explore. From the sci-fi literature of Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, and N. K. Jemisin to the musical cosmos of Sun Ra, George Clinton, and the Black Eyed Peas', to the visual and multimedia artists inspired by African Dogon myths and Egyptian deities, the book's topics range from the "alien" experience of blacks in America to the "wake up" cry that peppers sci-fi literature, sermons, and activism. With a twofold aim to entertain and enlighten, Afrofuturists strive to break down racial, ethnic, and social limitations to empower and free individuals to be themselves.

AIP’s Diversity, Equity, & Belonging Officer Jovonni Spinner recommends this book, which was a 2014 Locus Awards Non Fiction Finalist.

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Dawn - by Octavia E. Butler (1987)

Genre: Science Fiction

From Grand Central Publishing

When Lilith lyapo wakes from a centuries-long sleep, she finds herself aboard the vast spaceship of the Oankali. She discovers that the Oankali—a seemingly benevolent alien race—intervened in the fate of the humanity hundreds of years ago, saving everyone who survived a nuclear war from a dying, ruined Earth and then putting them into a deep sleep. After learning all they could about Earth and its beings, the Oankali healed the planet, cured cancer, increased human strength, and they now want Lilith to lead her people back to Earth—but salvation comes at a price.

Hopeful and thought-provoking, this post-apocalyptic narrative deftly explores gender and race through the eyes of characters struggling to adapt during a pivotal time of crisis and change.

Staff member Maura Shapiro recommends this book: I loved reading this book! I found myself immediately immersed in the speculative fiction world Butler created even as she wove in themes from our world. I started reading her work after listening to this Throughline episode, which I also recommend. 

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Parable of the Sower - by Octavia E. Butler (1993)

Genre: Science Fiction

Two Octavia Butler books on one booklist? Absolutely. From the author:

When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers, from pervasive water shortage to masses of vagabonds who will do anything to live to see another day. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy. In a society where any vulnerability is a risk, she suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others' emotions.

Precocious and clear-eyed, Lauren must make her voice heard in order to protect her loved ones from the imminent disasters her small community stubbornly ignores. But what begins as a fight for survival soon leads to something much more: the birth of a new faith . . . and a startling vision of human destiny.

AIP’s Diversity, Equity, & Belonging Officer Jovonni Spinner recommends this book! It’s also recently been adapted into a graphic novel.

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The Upper World - by Femi Fadugba (2021)

Genre: Science Fiction

From HarperCollins Publishers

If you had the chance to change your future, would you take it?

Perfect for fans of Neal Shusterman and Jason Reynolds, this powerhouse, mind-bending YA debut follows two teens, a generation apart, whose fates collide across time—and outside of it.


During arguably the worst week of Esso’s life, an accident knocks him into an incredible world—a place beyond space or time, where he can see glimpses of the past and future. But if what he sees there is true, he might not have much longer to live, unless he can use his new gift to change the course of history.


Rhia’s past is filled with questions, none of which she expects a new physics tutor to answer. But Dr. Esso’s not here to help Rhia. He’s here because he needs her help—to unravel a tragedy that happened fifteen years ago. One that holds the key not only to Rhia’s past, but to a future worth fighting for.

Soon to be a major Netflix movie starring Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya!

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Desert Heat - by Janice Sims (2003)

Genre: Romance

From Harlequin:

Kate Matthews is the daughter of a famous physicist. She has just finished filling in for him at an awards ceremony and has flown back to her hometown of Tucson, Arizona. She is in the process of calling a cab from the airport, when she overhears the man next to her on the phone bragging that he is a terrorist. She knows she has to do something when she sees him with a gun. She immediately alerts her cousin, a security agent, and they wrestle the man to the ground. Seizing this opportune time to use her jabs, Kate punches the “terrorist” in the nose. Well, it turns out that the “terrorist” is none other than U.S. Marshal Rafael “Rafe” Grant. Kate regrets harming his perfect nose, but thinks of other parts she would not mind getting her hands on. The attraction between Kate and Rafe is electric and soon they are inseparable. But, will the relationship withstand the challenges of their demanding jobs?

Read the book on Internet Archive | WorldCat | Goodreads | thriftbooks

Talk Sweetly to Me - by Courtney Milan (2014)

Genre: Romance

From the author

Nobody knows who Miss Rose Sweetly is, and she prefers it that way. She's a shy, mathematically-minded shopkeeper's daughter who dreams of the stars. Women like her only ever come to attention through scandal. She'll take obscurity, thank you very much.

All of England knows who Stephen Shaughnessy is. He's an infamous advice columnist and a known rake. When he moves into the house next door to Rose, she discovers that he's also wickedly funny, devilishly flirtatious, and heart-stoppingly handsome. But when he takes an interest in her mathematical work, she realizes that Mr. Shaughnessy isn't just a scandal waiting to happen. He's waiting to happen to her...and if she's not careful, she'll give in to certain ruination.

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Honey Girl: A Novel - by Morgan Rogers (2021)

Genre: Romance

From Park Row Books:

With her newly completed PhD in astronomy in hand, twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes on a girls’ trip to Vegas to celebrate. She is not the kind of person who goes to Vegas and gets drunkenly married to a woman whose name she doesn’t know…until she does exactly that.

This one moment of departure from her stern ex-military father’s plans for her life has Grace wondering why she doesn’t feel more fulfilled from completing her degree. Staggering under the weight of her father’s expectations, a struggling job market and feelings of burnout, Grace flees her home in Portland for a summer in New York with the wife she barely knows.

When reality comes crashing in, Grace must face what she’s been running from all along—the fears that make us human, the family scars that need to heal and the longing for connection, especially when navigating the messiness of adulthood. 

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Find Where The Wind Goes: Moments From My Life - by Mae Jemison (2001)

Genre: Children's

In her own words, Mae Jemison describes her life in this middle grade book. From Scholastic

Mae Jemison decided what she wanted to be when she was five years old in 1961. “I’m going to be a scientist,” she told her kindergarten teacher. That wasn’t the answer her teacher expected from a small, skinny black girl. But that teacher didn’t know Mae very well. She didn’t know that Mae would indeed become a scientist — and a doctor, and a Peace Corps medical officer, and the first black woman astronaut. Of course, Mae herself didn’t know all that either, but she did know she wanted to find out how things worked, and why. What made the stars glitter? Why did people on the other side of the world see different ones? How was the earth made, and why did the dinosaurs disappear?

Neither Mae nor her teacher realized it, but Mae’s life turned a corner and set off in a new direction that day. Events that change our lives don’t always come like a hurricane, sweeping everything before it. Sometimes they begin subtly, like a puff of wind, or a five-year-old’s statement of purpose. But that subtle change can send life off in a new direction, and that little girl becomes an astronaut instead of a professional dancer, a doctor instead of an architect, a scientist instead of a fashion designer.

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Ronnie’s Great Idea - by Jomo W. Mutegi (2016)

Genre: Children's

Ronnie's Great Idea is a children's biographical fiction book about the theoretical physicist Ronald L. Mallett. The book tells the story of "Ronnie's" life from childhood to university professor and describes the challenges faced to achieve his ultimate goal: building a time machine. 

The book is self-published by the author through Black Kids Read which, "publishes science-related, children's books featuring positive, uplifting images of Black children and families as protagonists. The books tackle challenging, social and STEM-related topics in ways that make these topics easy for children to understand and easy for parents to explain." 

WorldCat | Goodreads | Black Kids Read


Whoosh! : Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions - by Chris Barton, Illustrated by Don Tate (2016)

Genre: Children's

This picture book is about inventor and aerospace engineer Lonnie Johnson, a black aerospace engineer who invented the super soaker, one of the most popular toys of all time. From the Kirkus review

“As an adult he worked for NASA and helped to power the spacecraft Galileo as it explored Jupiter. But nothing is as memorable in the minds of kids as his most famous invention (to date): the Super-Soaker. While testing out a new cooling method for refrigerators, Johnson accidentally sprayed his entire bathroom, and the idea was born. However, the high-powered water gun was not an instant success. Barton shows the tenacity and dedication (and, sometimes, plain good timing) needed to prove ideas. From the initial blast of water that splashes the word “WHOOSH” across the page (and many pages after) to the gatefold that transforms into the Larami toy executives’ (tellingly, mostly white) reactions—“WOW!”—Tate plays up the pressurized-water imagery to the hilt. In a thoughtful author’s note, Barton explains how Johnson challenges the stereotypical white, Einstein-like vision of a scientist.” 

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