Danica McKellar’s Girls Get Curves Makes Geometry Relevant

Geek Culture

Ever since Danica McKellar, the actor (best known for playing Winnie in The Wonder Years) and UCLA-trained mathematician, began her New York Times-bestselling series of math books for girls in 2007, I’ve been curious to see what’s going on that’s got parents, teachers and girls so excited. Which is why I volunteered to review McKellar’s new book Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape, even though I’m not her target audience.

You see, my own children are boys, not girls. And I was never scared of math myself (at least, not until college calculus). But I am constantly surprised to hear how many otherwise smart, resourceful moms cringe when it comes to helping their kids with math. And I tend to get annoyed when my fellow English majors, journalists, and other wordy, artistic types boast of their innumeracy. (Such as the local newspaper editor I apparently offended when I suggested that her Tweet saying that figuring out how often Leap Years occur “made her brain hurt” was feeding some unfortunate stereotypes.)

All of which means, as a homeschooling mom, that I could use some inspiration when it comes to explaining how simple and predictable math really is. As my younger son (the less-mathy one) and I embark on our second go-round with geometry, I thought it might be helpful to see how a mathematician (as opposed to a classroom teacher) talks about math to kids who think they hate math.

Make no mistake: McKellar’s writing is aimed directly at girly-girls — readers who are concerned with looking fashionable and getting cute boys to like them. But having read the first few chapters and gone through some later sections of Girls Get Curves, I decided that I’m OK with that. After all, how can you argue with a book that contains all the information of the typical dry, boring text book but presents it in a friendly, empowering voice? In fact, even though I wasn’t particularly math-phobic or clothes-conscious, had this book existed when I was in school, I think I would have appreciated it simply for the life-lessons it contains.

For McKellar’s trick is to show how understanding math makes the world easier to comprehend. Girls Get Curves opens with a discussion of logic. Learn to do a step-by-step proof of a math concept, and you’ve developed the skill to analyze arguments, evaluate advertising claims, and explain yourself clearly to other people. As she says in the introduction:

Look, it’s no secret that girls are often labeled as “emotional” and “irrational.” Of course we’re emotional-it’s what gives us energy and passion, and it’s one of the most beautiful, powerful parts of being a woman. But we don’t have to be irrational. No way! Being irrational happens when strong emotions cloud our minds, causing us to say things or act in ways that don’t serve our goals. The logic we learn in geometry literally focuses our passion, giving us the power to keep our wits about us, even during emotional whirlwinds.

She then dives right into logic and reasoning, basic axioms like the meaning of line, segment, ray; different kinds of angles; working with diagrams; and then right onto proofs. The writing moves along quickly, although there are also problems you can work on throughout each chapter. (Answers are in the back of the book, with more detailed explanations and additional problems on girlsgetcurves.com.) In a way, McKellar’s book is the girl version of the high school textbook series we use at home, which also features a conversational style and hidden jokes (such as words spelled out by the lettered points on a diagram), but inserts cartoons and comic strips instead of fashion-magazine-style sidebars.

What sets this book apart (and presumably McKellar’s whole series, which I have not yet read) are the segments on self-esteem, health, beauty, and relationships which the author weaves around and sometimes relates to the math. I particularly like the questions and advice from readers, and the profiles of women who use math and science in their work, such as professional pool player Amy Chen and structural engineer Melanie Soto-Medina. But part of the series success comes from the fact that McKellar herself is a role model – co-author of the Chayes-McKellar-Winn physics theorem, bright, funny and self-confident. (Watch the G4 Attack of the Show interview above and listen to her on the Nerdist Podcast.) There’s seems to be no doubt that McKellar’s formula is working, and kids are responding.

Will I share this book with my son? I’m not sure. While I think the math explanations could be helpful, he probably wouldn’t go for the girl-centric material. Will I read through it myself? Definitely. Having McKellar’s explanations on hand to help explain concepts to my son is sure to be helpful. Would I recommend the book to middle and high school girls tackling geometry? Definitely. Girls Get Curves has just the right balance of math material and clear-headed advice that any girl can learn from.

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