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Actress' book makes math fun

TV actress Danica McKellar, famous TV actress, will appear in Miami this week to promote negative numbers. And exponents, distributive property, working with variables, graphing inequalities, and numerous, mind-bending ways to solve for X. Or Y. Or Z. Take your pick.

That's because in addition to her roles on TV's The Wonder Years and The West Wing, McKellar's other impressive credential is math whiz. After beginning middle school terrified of fractions and decimals, she tamed her (irrational) number fears, eventually going on to UCLA, where she not only graduated summa cum laude with a degree in mathematics, but co-authored a mathematical physics theorem that bears her name.

Who said beauty and brains don't mix?

McKellar hit the bestseller charts last year with Math Doesn't Suck (Plume, $15, ages 10 and up), a guide for kids entering middle school, which included tips for understanding percentages, ratios, proportions, multiplying with decimals and other math challenges that

have been giving sixth-graders headaches for centuries.

This year she has graduated to pre-algebra with Kiss My Math (Hudson Street Press, $24.95), aimed at students about to tackle higher-level math.

Both books are breezily written, closer in style to Seventeen magazine than the textbook assigned at the beginning of the year. To explain the role of improper fractions vs. mixed numbers, McKellar uses a shoe analogy.

"Most of the time I wear tennis shoes, because I can wear them almost anywhere. But if I'm getting dressed up, I use my high heels.''

Improper fractions, she says, are the tennis shoes of math -- "anytime you need to do something -- add it, subtract it, multiply it, divide it, convert it to a decimal or percent -- it's usually much easier to use improper fractions.''

Save those mixed numbers for special occasions.

The personality quizzes ("Are You a Math-o-phobe?'') math horoscopes and testimonials from girls and women who have mastered math, add pop culture sizzle to what could otherwise be very dry material, but that strength points out both books' one weakness: the appeal is squarely aimed at girls.

McKellar uses an exercise that involves listing all the traits of former boyfriends to explain what the term "greatest common factor'' means and uses friendship bracelet beads to illustrate the notion of factors. It's very clever, but my rising sixth-grader decried it as very girly, too. Actually, his exact words were, "Mom, I don't care how many lipsticks go in each bag!''

So, Ms. McKellar, can you substitute a variable? Can you rewrite these in gender-neutral prose? Because I know at least one boy who could benefit from a book that convincingly argues that math is cool.