Here's a math question for Danica McKellar, the actress best known as Winnie Cooper on the hit TV show "The Wonder Years": What percentage of her time does she spend acting, and what percentage writing books encouraging tween and teen girls to tackle math?
"If you look at the entire year, I would say 25 percent acting and 75 percent math books," McKellar says in a phone interview from Los Angeles. She's driving to her current acting gig, the lead in the romantic comedy "Small Chairs," about two people who fell in love over the years at the children's table at Christmas celebrations.
She recently came to Long Island to talk about her fourth math-unraveling book, "Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape" (Hudson Street Press, $28.95).
McKellar, now 37, appears on the cover in slinky black clothes and tan pumps. The cover purposely looks like a teen magazine, with subheads such as, "How do you attract guys?" and "8 self-esteem boosters." Inside, in addition to detailed explanations of how to do geometric proofs, is a body image quiz, sections titled "Danica's Diary" and testimonials from successful women.
McKellar is trying to show girls you don't have to be a "nerdy, antisocial outcast" to understand math. "You don't have to choose between being the fun, fabulous girl and being the smart girl who knows what's up. You can do both. That's my big message."
A MATH MAJOR
McKellar should know -- the five-year run of "The Wonder Years" ended in 1993, coinciding with McKellar's high school graduation. She went to the University of California, Los Angeles, intending to study film. She didn't contemplate earning a math degree because she bought into the stereotypes -- even though she'd earned a 5, the highest score, on the AP Calculus exam in high school. "I didn't think I looked the part of somebody who would do well in a college math class," McKellar says.
She tried one class, and did so well that she went on to write a theorem with a professor and a classmate, called the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem, and to graduate with a math degree. "I felt valued for something that had nothing to do with Hollywood," she says. "It had everything to do with my mind and my brain."
She wanted to show other girls they didn't have to love math, but they had to realize they could do it. She says writing the books was what she was put on this Earth to do -- her first three books are titled "Math Doesn't Suck," "Kiss My Math" and "Hot X: Algebra Exposed."
"It feels like this is combining the two sides of myself, my love of math and my love of entertaining," McKellar says. "I'm making entertaining math books."
McKellar is proudest of making dry mathematical formulas interesting to girls and easy to remember, using anecdotes and analogies, "the goofier the better." She uses the armpits of snow angels, for instance, to explain angles. She advises students to remember that acute angles are smaller than 90 degrees because they are so little and cute, and obtuse angles are bigger than 90 degrees because they're obese.
On her book tours, her audiences tend to be teachers, parents and some kids. She says she expected more people to want to gloss over the math and ask her about "The Wonder Years." She thought they'd say, "Yeah, OK, but what was it like having your first kiss on television?"
But it hasn't been like that, she says. "People are really interested about the state of girls dumbing themselves down," she says.
In addition to acting and writing books, McKellar is mom to Draco, who will be 2 in September. She has joint custody of him with his father, composer Mike Verta.
There will likely be a fifth book, but McKellar says, "I'm not sure if next I'll be going to Algebra II or if I'll go back to younger ages." She's gotten many requests from parents to write books for third-graders, she says.
First, however, she wants to concentrate on being a mom, a role she enjoys even more than acting and writing books. Says McKellar: "It's the most joyous thing ever."
Five tips to get kids excited about math
Glen Whitney, a Stony Brook dad who is executive director of Manhattan's soon-to-open Museum of Math, lives to find ways to get kids more interested in mathematics. His museum opens Dec. 15 at 11 E. 26th Street, and it'll house 45 interactive exhibits for fourth- to eighth-graders.
Here are five tips from Whitney to get kids excited about math before they head back to school:
1. Teach them to play Sudoku. A good starting book is "The Monster Book of Sudoku for Kids: 150 Fun Puzzles" by Will Shortz.
2. Challenge them with logic puzzles in "What Is the Name of This Book?: The Riddle of Dracula and Other Logical Puzzles" by Raymond M. Smullyan.
3. Introduce them to "The Wright 3" by Blue Balliett, for grades 5 to 8, which is a mystery story with math themes running through it, such as coded messages and 3-D pentominoes, shapes you make by connecting five squares along their edges.
4. Visit the museum's website, momath.org, scroll down and click on "Math Mondays at Make." You'll find do-at-home math craft/construction projects such as "Paper Plate Geometry," "Make a Mathematical Haircut" and "Slice a Bagel into 13 Pieces with Three Cuts."
For more of a challenge, try building a catapult that shoots M&M's. See directions at sweeneymath.blogspot.com.