We’ve all heard the saying, Don’t judge a book by its cover, but I did it anyway. Well, not by the cover, exactly — I also flipped through the table of contents and read the short introduction. And I said to myself, “I don’t talk like this. I don’t let my kids talk like this. Why should I want to read a book that talks like this? I’ll leave it to the public school kids, who are surely used to worse.”
Okay, I admit it: I’m a bit of a prude. And it caused me to miss out on a good book. But now Danica McKellar‘s second book is out, and the first one has been released in paperback. A friendly PR lady emailed to offer me a couple of review copies, so I gave Math Doesn’t Suck a second chance.
I’m so glad I did.
I was terrified of math.
I remember sitting in my seventh grade math class, staring at a quiz as if it were written in Chinese — it might as well have been a blank sheet of paper. Total brain freeze.
Nothing made sense. I felt sick to my stomach, and I could feel the blood draining from my face. I had studied so hard, but it didn’t seem to make any difference — I barely even recognized the math problems on the page.
When the bell rang and my quiz was still blank, I wanted to disappear into my chair. I just didn’t want to exist.
— Danica McKellar
Introduction to Math Doesn’t Suck
Like a compassionate older sister with an If I can do it, you can, too! attitude, McKellar aims to teach math-phobic middle school girls how to survive the toughest topics in arithmetic: factors, fractions, decimals, percents, ratios, word problems, and more. Step by step guides and example problems are interspersed with teen-magazine-style sidebars, testimonials, quick quotes, and personality quizzes. Each chapter ends with a short list of “Takeaway Tips,” summarizing the main concepts a student needs to master.
At the end of the book is a “Troubleshooting Guide,” giving practical tips for dealing with five common complaints:
- “Math bores me to death.”
- “When it’s time to do math, I get scared and try to avoid it.”
- “I get confused and lost during class.”
- “I think I understand something, but then I get the wrong answer in my homework.”
- “My homework is fine, but when it comes time for a test, I freeze up and can’t remember anything.”
What I Liked
The book is written in conversational English, a refreshing change for students whose only experience with math has been textbooks. McKellar doesn’t skip steps in the interest of concise prose, but clearly explains what she is doing as she works through the example problems.
I was glad to see that she doesn’t shy away from math terminology, but defines it clearly and uses it often enough for it to become familiar.
I liked the very short exercise sets that give students a chance to check whether they understand the topic just taught. Answers are in the back of the book, and fully worked out solutions can be found at the Math Doesn’t Suck website.
I enjoy word play, and I found some of the mnemonics delightful:
- Prime numbers are like monkeys (primates) hanging from the lowest branches of a factor tree.
- Re-FLIP-rocal. (Well, it was new to me.)
- Unit rates are “per-D” cool, when you speak with a Southern drawl.
That last one requires explanation: “Pretty” is pronounced “purty” in the South, and the unit that comes after the “per” names the Denominator of your fraction.
I liked the “Danica’s Diary” entries, which showcase math in interesting, real-life stories. They give the book a comfortable feeling, as if the reader were sitting down to chat with a friend.
What I Didn’t Like
Many of the lessons are step-by-step recipes for solving a certain type of problem. I would have liked to see more Why does it work that way? explanations, like the “Return of the Copycat” section in chapter 10 (which shows what is really happening when we move the decimal point before doing long division).
For example, I wish McKellar had taken the time to show why the shortcut of cross-multiplying works, that it is the same as finding the numerators of the common-denominator equivalent fractions. And I wish she had shown more clearly how “means and extremes” is the same as skipping a step when you simplify complex fractions, perhaps by working the same fraction both as a division problem and using means and extremes.
She comes very close to showing why these tricks work — an additional paragraph or two could have done it in each case. But instead, she presents them as mathematical magic for students to memorize.
Danica McKellar knows far more about math than I do. She majored in mathematics at UCLA and graduated summa cum laude in 1998. She and fellow student Brandy Winn coauthored a paper (pdf) with Lincoln Chayes, giving both students an Erdős number of 4. According to Wikipedia:
McKellar took Terrence Tao‘s Introduction to Topology class “way back in 1997, and in fact was the second-best student there.” Tao writes about the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem here, and John Baez gives the short version here.
No, she doesn’t talk like a bratty kid demanding attention throughout the book. The semi-crude language is mostly limited to the title, contents pages, and a brief (but inspiring) introduction.
Buy, or Don’t Buy?
If you already understand and are good at math, then don’t buy this book. Instead, spend your money on more interesting enrichment or puzzle books, like Secrets of Mental Math or a book by Brian Bolt, Edward Zaccaro, or Raymond Smullyan. Or try one of the challenging books from Art of Problem Solving.
But if you identified with McKellar’s story about the 7th grade math test, or if you find yourself repeating any of those five common complaints, then Math Doesn’t Suck is for you. Buy it. Read it. Go over the example problems as many times as you need to, to be sure you’ve mastered them. Keep the book handy for reference. Whenever you have homework dealing with a tough arithmetic topic, review the relevant chapter — especially those “Takeaway Tips.”
I frequently meet homeschooling parents who are afraid of math and concerned about passing on their math phobia to their children. Starting now, this book and its sequel, Kiss My Math (review here), are my whole-hearted recommendations to any homeschool mom who tells me she “just doesn’t get math.”
As McKellar writes:
Working on math sharpens your brain, actually making you smarter in all areas. Intelligence is real, it’s lasting, and no one can take it away from you. Ever.
And take it from me, nothing can take the place of the confidence that comes from developing your intelligence — not beauty, or fame, or anything else “superficial.”
Math isn’t easy for anyone. It takes time and persistence to understand this stuff, so don’t give up on yourself just because you might feel frustrated. Everyone feels like that sometimes — everyone. It’s what you do about those feelings that makes you who you are.
It’s in those moments when you want to give up but you keep going anyway that you separate yourself from the crowd and build the skills of patience and fortitude that will allow you to excel throughout your entire life — no matter what you choose as a career.