Review: Danica McKellar books (middle school on up)

Review of Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail by Danica McKellar and discussion from the Living Math Forum

My 10 year old has been enjoying this book a great deal. I heard about it a little while ago, it was published last year. But I've seen some of these "math for girls" books that aren't that great.  What's funny to me is she's excitedly talking to me about things like factoring in the way the author describes it, as if I never taught it to her, LOL, like it's something new that she finally gets.

While my older son loved reading math books, he tended toward books like the Murderous Maths. She thinks some of the stuff in those is funny, but she doesn't enjoy reading them nearly as much as my older son did. This book, however, is written specifically with humor middle school girls can appreciate, and as you can tell by the title, it has some attitude :o)

Here's a bit from the book (that I can write now that my daughter went to her dance class and I can get it out of her clutches).

Chapter 1's title is "How to Make A Killing On Ebay" and begins, "Have you ever made a friendship bracelet? I used to make them all the time. I loved going to the bead store and picking out pretty beads to string together. I haven't made one in awhile, but I have a friend who now makes a lot of money by making her own bracelets and selling them on Ebay!" Then she says, "Let's make one" and gives instructions to make a bracelet with 24 medium sized beads. She talks about if you have 16 onyx and 8 jade, how would you figure out the patterns you could make? Then she gives pictures where she separates the jade beads into 2 groups of 4 beads each, or she could do 4 groups of 2 beads each (w/pictures), and the onyx beads could be separated in 2 groups of 8 beads, 4 groups of 4 beads, etc. (she lays out all the combinations).

She then explains how all these options for having evenly divided groups are what factors are.

At this point my daughter proceeded to pull out her bead kit and, of course, construct every kind of bead bracelet pattern she could from the book. I have one on my wrist at this very moment ;o).

Then the author ties this into a cute little paragraph on prime numbers . .

. and monkeys: "Some numbers of beads cannot be evenly divided up no matter what you do. Lots of small numbers are like that: 2, 3, 5 and 7. The only factors they have are 1 and themselves. There are bigger numbers like that too, like 53 and 101. It's hard to believe that there's no way to evenly divide up 101, but it's true! I like to think of these numbers as less 'evolved' than most numbers. They don't have a whole lot going on upstairs, if you know what I mean. They're uncomplicated. They're 'primitive,' like monkeys. (Monkeys are a type of primate). And perhaps that is why these are less evolved numbers are called prime. Yes, prime numbers are a bit like monkeys. Just go with me on this okay?"

And then there a whole bunch of other fun stuff from there, because primes are like monkeys, then factor trees are drawn like simple palm trees, and the factors are like the monkeys that dangle from the branches of the composite factors. There are fun pictures that my daughter pulled out her math journal to duplicate, palm fronds and all. We've drawn factor trees before, but nothing quite like this, LOL.

The author really likes to rename things, for example, "equivalent fractions" become "copycat fractions. She basically shows that this is a name that worked for her to remember what they are, and the idea is, do what you need to do to remember why something works. The math is solid - there's a "Watch Out!" section below that warns you zero over zero isn't a copycat fraction, because it's undefined in math, with an "In fact, you can never have 0 on the bottom of a fraction - ever. Seriously. I'm not even kidding."

Of course, this type of dialogue is a lot of what has my daughter's interest.

The book is targeted to middle school girls who have learned to not like math, or who may have attained the idea that they have to hide how smart they are, or that it isn't cool to be smart and learn about math. My daughter doesn't have this baggage at all, she really likes math a lot and hasn't been to school to begin to feel any peer pressure to not appear smart. But she likes the very fun analogies the author

( presents, along with the distinctly girl-oriented dialogue.

We don't have network television in our home and we don't subscribe to teen magazines, so I will say that my daughter missed the similarity of the cover to a teen magazine. But the cover of the book if you look at it is very much like a magazine cover. The inside, however, is all black and white or grayscale. Plenty of diagrams and variety in presentation, however. The target audience does come through with some rather interesting vignettes such as "How Many Lipsticks Does One Celebrity Need," a math problem solved by factoring of course :o), and a quote here and there from positive role models for girls.  There's a rather fun Quiz #1 "Are You a Mathophobe?" on page 33 in chapter 33, "You Can Never Have Too Many Shoes" that is of course addressed to kids in school, although a homeschooled kid can definitely relate to a lot of it if they homeschool in a traditional manner, and my daughter finds it funny because she has friends who talk about their school experiences. It's definitely quite secular, so you run into a section on horoscopes that might mean a religiously conservative family might pass on this one. We're moderate Christians so I just discuss values that might pop up on the context of our beliefs. But the majority of the book is just math going from factors to early algebra.

I hope that gives you more information. I haven't read the entire thing through, just parts of it, and while I thought my daughter would enjoy reading it, I was a bit surprised at just how much she took to the style of writing.

Julie Brennan

Written in the Living Math Forum October, 2008