We met author and actress Danica McKellar at MoMath — the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan — recently to talk to her about her latest book, “Do Not Open This Math Book” (Crown Books). We like that she is sending the message that kids (and adults!) should not feel threatened by math.
What prompted you to write this book to assist students in mathematics?
I’ve been writing math books for 10 years, even more. I started off with middle school and high school books, and then I realized there was a need to help kids in even first and second grade, especially because parents these days might not recognize their kids’ math homework like we used to, because they changed the math a lot. I thought this would be a really helpful resource to make math for addition, subtraction in first and second grade fun, not just for the students, but also for the parents and also to help make it more familiar to them. In fact at the end of the book, there is something called the new math translation guide for grown-ups. Because I want parents to be able to help their kids with homework.
We enjoyed the section of the book devoted to baking and perfect 10s and 20s. What made you develop this idea around baking?
I was trying to think of a cool analogy for how to teach place value with tens and ones. I thought, well what’s like little groupings of 10 that I can do? And I thought about muffin tins and I thought, oh, tins, that’s probably like 10, right? Ten and tin are similar. And buns and ones are also similar in sound, and that’s how I came up with it.
What prompted you to use a dog on the stairs in Chapter One?
I wanted to show something like a number line but that we see in our everyday lives. Instead of little ticks on a number line, it could be steps on a stair. Well, that way you have a diagonal number line, and that kind of works.
How do you feel that becoming a parent has changed the way you look at school?
I actually home-schooled my son. I knew that I would have a lot of opinions about how math was being taught, for example. And I realized that instead of having him in school I could have him in tons of sports and other activities. When it comes to schooling itself, especially because I write these books, I knew that I would have a really good time teaching him myself.
How did you come up with the idea for the organization of the book into chapters, and why did you choose those key concepts?
When I write a book I go back and forth between working on the outline of the table of contents and writing the actual chapter of content. I kind of go with whatever is inspiring me. And as I write it takes shape. It kind of changes as I write things. The important thing with writing a book is that you want to keep your mind open to let it change as you write it, so you don’t get stuck in one idea. You’ve got to keep it flexible.
We love your Hallmark movies. What one is your favorite?
I had so much fun doing the Hallmark movies. I usually say that my favorite movie is the one that I’ve just worked on because I like them all so much. But I will say I am partial to a movie called “Campfire Kids” where I played a math teacher.
Is it annoying that people ask you about your earlier shows?
I don’t mind it at all. That was my childhood and it was a really great experience, and people have really good feelings when they think about it, so that makes me happy that I can bring joy to so many people and make them nostalgic about childhood.
Do you guys know the show “Project Mc²”? A lot of kids your age watch it. It’s on Netflix. That’s a fun show because that encourages girls in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] as well.
Do you like the Hallmark movies better than “The Wonder Years?”
“The Wonder Years” is what I did 25 years ago. I love The Hallmark Channel movies so much because that’s my life now. But I also love “The Wonder Years.” It would be hard for me to actually really compare them.
What is easier for you to do, learn your lines or your math problems?
Math is pretty easy for me. Learning lines is something you get better at the more you do, just like math. Any time you exercise a certain part of your brain, that part of your brain gets stronger. And your entire brain gets stronger as well.
Of all the people you’ve worked with, who was your favorite co-star?
Oh, my goodness. I had so many great co-stars. I mean, Fred Savage [“The Wonder Years”] was obviously great. He was like my brother growing up. Some of my Hallmark Channel movies have been really fun. I loved working with Rob Lowe on “The West Wing.” That was pretty awesome. He was really great to work with. And Rob Lowe is even more handsome in person. Just saying.
What do you enjoy most about discipline of mathematics?
The best for me, the most fun that I have with math, is when I think I can’t do a problem, and then I do it. You struggle through it, that feeling I call the math high. You’re just like “I did it!” And there’s this adrenaline and endorphins and all sorts of good things. It’s a great feeling, and it’s an important feeling, too, to experience because when you think you can’t do something but then you do, you taught yourself that you’re smarter and stronger than you thought you were. Any time you approach an obstacle, if you get good at math, your brain starts to go, OK, this is an obstacle, but that’s all it is. I can work with this. I can work through this. Or work around it.
Do you think that math is useful in every career?
Math is useful in every career because it’s useful for your brain to get that sharp and to be a good problem-solver. There are going to be problems that arise in every part of life, not just careers but you personal life as well. And the better problem-solver you are, the better equipped you are to handle that. And in terms of actual literal math, I don’t think you need the literal math in every single career except for the fact that hopefully you’ll get paid, and that’s money, and the way you handle money is definitely affected by your level of comfort with numbers.
Why do you think so many children and adults are terrified of mathematics?
Math is a language. And it’s a foreign language unless it was translated in a good way. A lot of people think that math is a science. I don’t agree. Math is not a science. Math is the language of the sciences. So it’s got a structure, and it can be learned, but it is foreign unless if somebody teaches it to you in the right way. So that’s why I’m so passionate about making it fun and accessible because I don’t want it to stay foreign. I want it to be friendly. That’s why I’m writing books for even littler kids because like “Goodnight, Numbers” is a snuggly bedtime book, that’s the opposite of foreign and scary. That’s cuddle time with your parents before bed and with your mom or your dad and love, and it’s family and affection and let’s associate that with math. It doesn’t feel like a foreign language. That’s it.