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Not Your Mother's Math Book
Review of Danica McKellar's Kiss My Math

by Jonathan David Farley, D.Phil.


Hollywood actress Danica McKellar and I have a history. In fact, we used to be quite close. What I mean to say is: I sat next to her once.

I met Danica McKellar in 2006 when she spoke at a symposium on women and mathematics that I helped organize at Stanford University. She was passionate and animated about the topic and still had much more to say when time constraints forced us to end the panel discussion.

I suppose she put some of what she had left to say into her 2007 book, Math Doesn't Suck. I was apprehensive when Danica sent me a draft of the book, since I didn't know how a math book targeted toward tweenaged girls would be received., the Los Angeles Times, and ABC News proved that I was too pessimistic. Danica's book became a best seller.

Danica McKellar is an unlikely exponent of math education. Not only because she is an actress-she played a speechwriter with the Dickensian name of "Elsie Snuffin" in the television series The West Wing, she solves mysteries as "Inspector Mom" on the Lifetime Channel, and her layout in Stuff Magazine had many a math wonk adjusting his glasses-but also because she actually co-authored a research-level mathematics paper (as an undergraduate, no less; she graduated summa cum laude from the University of California at Los Angeles). Few people who do serious research in math at the university level are interested in what goes on in schools.

Now Danica has written Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss. As a mathematician, I did not need to brush up on the topics too much—for instance, the opening chapter covers adding and subtracting negative integers—however, in my own work as an algebraist, I have learned to utilize some of the tips Danica teaches in her book: about being careful with subtracting negative numbers or subtracting expressions in parentheses, or about keeping z's, 2's, 1's and 7's straight. Of course, the point is not whether a professional mathematician finds the topics simple; Kiss My Math covers many of the topics listed on the California state standards for algebra, as well as additional fun topics like mean, median, and mode, and graphing lines.

What truly distinguishes Kiss My Math from other books is its tone. It playfully relates topics in math to experiences in girls' everyday life (or so I'm told): absolute values are introduced by way of a metaphor with spas; the distributive property is introduced in a particularly nice way using costume parties. In most cases the humor makes you smile; in some cases, laugh.

She also has interludes with stories from her life and the lives of her acquaintances, showing how math can help you in your career. While I have never argued that kids must learn math because they will need it in their future careers, Danica makes a compelling case. For example, she quotes an interior designer, who says that "furniture layouts require dimensioning (this involves adding fractions). To obtain square footage of floor plates, we have to calculate areas of triangles, parallelograms, and other geometries. When designing for law firms, calculations are also required when comparing ratios-for instance, how many secretaries there are per lawyer—so we can figure out how to best arrange the offices."

I especially liked her story about saving cash at a clothing store—the cashier had overcharged her, ringing up one item twice by doing some mental arithmetic. (I did the same thing at a McDonald's once; but no one was impressed.) Danica also has good tips on how to keep terms straight when simplifying monomial sums and differences; she even has tips on organizing your time which I myself might put to use.

The only sidebar that was out of place was one on fitness tips. It had nothing to do with math. On the other hand, the sidebar about whether boys like girls who dumb themselves down also had little to do with math, but I felt it was entirely appropriate, as well as other instructional tidbits about self-esteem. Since this book is intended for a slightly older audience, I thought the focus on boys and dating was acceptable.

I liked the way Danica mentions the associative, commutative, and distributive properties, as well as identities. (The commutative law says that a+b=b+a and a x b = b x a.) As with her first book, however, I wish she had gone one step further and mentioned more advanced topics, in this case, group theory. I also feel she is not careful enough about cautioning readers against dividing by zero (although admittedly, as she pointed out to me, she does warn against dividing by zero at least five times between pages 115 to 120, so perhaps I am being unfair).

Otherwise, Danica paid careful attention even to the graphic design of the book: false statements are printed in grey, the "Mirror Rule for Inequality Symbols" is printed in black for extra emphasis.

Hopefully the book will be adopted by school districts and bought by parents. As Kiss My Math nicely dovetails with Math Doesn't Suck, I suspect we will see several more books in the series.

Professor Jonathan David Farley is in the Department of Mathematics at the California Institute of Technology. Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss is published by Hudson Street Press and hits bookstores August 21, 2008 in the United Kingdom and August 5 in the United States.

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