August 26, 2010


Hot X: Algebra Exposed! By Danica McKellar. Hudson Street Press. $26.95.

Parenting Apart: How Separated and Divorced Parents Can Raise Happy and Secure Kids. By Christina McGhee. Berkley. $15.

     Sometimes a new angle, trigonometrically speaking, can help you solve, mathematically speaking, a whole lot of problems, life-in-the-world speaking. Danica McKellar, a mathematician and advocate for math education as well as an actress (The West Wing, The Wonder Years), has now written three books with the same basic orientation. All are designed to get girls from middle school to high school interested in and adept in math. The first two, Math Doesn’t Suck and Kiss My Math, were previews of Hot X. That is, they dealt with math concepts simpler than those in algebra – the topic of McKellar’s latest book – but used the same cutesy style and “with-it” orientation to try to make math seem cool and even fun. Hey, whatever works. Math matters, and McKellar knows this, and that knowledge alone almost excuses the excesses that she packs into her books. And she does pack them in, quite intentionally; and if they are cringe-inducing sometimes, then the person with the induced cringe is probably not a member of the group at whom the books are aimed. So McKellar sprinkles her math instruction – which, not incidentally, is highly accurate even though highly nontraditional – with sections called “Mood Zapper: Take Control of Your Feelings” and “Confessional: Dumbing Ourselves Down – the Sequel.” There are quizzes (bold or shy? perfectionist or not?) and lots of comments in a style that used to be called “sassy.” For instance, right at the start, “The x you’re solving for is your future, and it, too, can be anything. Or take Chapter 4: “Meow Mix—Rational Expressions: Fractions with Variables in Them.” There are little pictures of teens singing or displaying their fashion sense or texting, next to quick notes and little warnings, such as, “Especially when subtracting, pay close attention to the negative signs that already exist; it can get tricky!” Very usefully, there are “Reality Math” sections – is “take an additional 20% off this 50% off sale” as good as a 70% off sale? (No; and McKellar clearly shows why not.) There are also comments in the book from the girls at whom it is aimed, such as 13-year-old Emily: “My new role model is my math teacher.” The idea of all this apparently disorganized and sometimes flippant presentation is to make the serious stuff – and the book is packed with it – more accessible. Does a picture of a fashionable teen whose cell phone is ringing make it easier to understand the product property of square roots? Is a two-page “confessional” on avoiding distractions, which includes comments by a dozen teens, useful? How about a cute headline, such as “Takeaway Tips,” above such decidedly non-cute comments as, “To add/subtract two radical expressions with identical radical parts, just add/subtract heir coefficients exactly as you would if the radical parts were variables”? Where do the “Danica’s Diary” entries fit into this? “Here’s my advice on the jewelry: Classic, tasteful stuff always works best.” The answer is that none of this really fits with anything else – but there runs through Hot X a current of understanding, since the book really does start with simple elements of algebra and move along through progressively more difficult and complex ones. It is certainly a salutary alternative to all those incredibly dry algebra books, which make an already difficult subject seem so tedious that it is hard to understand why anyone would want to master it. On the other hand, there are enough overdone or irrelevant elements in Hot X so that it can be difficult to focus on the underlying math without getting distracted by the many sideshows. For some people in the target audience of teenage girls, Hot X is likely to mark the spot; and for them, it may vastly enrich math education and maybe even show why more-difficult mathematics has genuine real-world value. For other teen girls, though, the mixture of subjects and styles (including type styles) and the constant upbeat narrative may become as wearing, in their own way, as traditional algebra texts can be. It is very, very good to have a book like Hot X available for students who have trouble with more straightforward ways of learning algebra. But girls need to know that they are not uncool if this book isn’t to their taste – it certainly won’t be to everyone’s.

     A few years after high school, many people encounter bigger problems than algebraic ones. Parenting Apart attempts to tackle one of the biggest, and it too does so in a very nontraditional way (although the writing itself is straightforward). Christina McGhee, a social worker, divorce coach and parent educator, is fond of tables, diagrams, bullet points and numbered lists, using all of them profusely in trying to show ways in which parents who no longer live together can nevertheless provide their children with happiness and security. This is a very tall order, since parents are security for children, and the sundering of a parental relationship – even for good reason – can seriously undermine kids’ ability to cope with the inevitable stresses of their world. This is a very, very packed book: four parts, 31 chapters, two to four sections per chapter, and lots of subsections. It can be daunting to read Parenting Apart, despite McGhee’s plainspoken style. It is best to pick and choose where to start, using the table of contents as a guide. For example, Part II of the book, “How Children Are Affected by Divorce,” includes chapters on age ranges from newborn-to-18-months to teenagers. It can be helpful to read this part’s introductory chapter (“Factors That Affect How Children Handle Divorce”) and then skip directly to the section or sections dealing with kids of specific ages. Each of those chapters contains a “developmental issues” section – containing, for ages six to nine, “self-esteem” and “greater sense of sadness,” and for teenagers, “role confusion” and “risk taking,” among other things. It also helps to look at brief comments that McGhee sets apart from the rest of her text in boxes – for instance, “Parenting through divorce is a lot like playing poker. Being a good poker player isn’t about being dealt a good hand; it’s about playing your best with the cards you’ve been dealt.” McGhee offers advice on what to tell children who want to know whose fault the breakup is: “Initially, it’s best to offer children a short explanation that does not place blame exclusively on either parent. …[But] best to be prepared for a series of conversations and to answer this question repeatedly.” She offers diagrams – some of them rather on the complex side – about how post-divorce parenting can work; one, for instance, shows the “ideal postseparation parenting arrangement” as a double flow chart in which children obtain values, love and a sense of belonging from both parents even when the parents’ everyday lives no longer intersect. It is hard to overstate how densely packed this book is. A section on “Common Alienating Behaviors,” for example, runs just over two pages and “is not a diagnostic tool,” but contains no fewer than 29 examples of ways in which one parent may create an ongoing campaign to pressure children to reject the other. Parents already feeling overwhelmed by child-rearing issues after a separation or divorce – or while contemplating one – will understandably feel even more pressured and “at sea” if they try to absorb the contents of McGhee’s book while also dealing with everything else in their lives. McGhee deserves much credit for not attempting to simplify post-separation or post-divorce parenting, but the issue with her book is whether its understandable complexity is such that its actual, real-world value to parents in the throes of emotionally difficult times is lessened. Some sections are certainly valuable and fairly easy to grasp, such as “Not-So-Obvious Ways Parents Can Devalue Each Other.” But other parts of the book require not only tremendous cooperation between adults who have decided that they cannot live together and raise their children together any longer, but also a willingness to think through many, many elements of children’s needs within the context of a traumatic adult split – and to do so wholly rationally and on an ongoing basis. This is a lot to ask of parents at any time, and maybe too much to ask of them when they are in the throes of ending a highly significant adult relationship. There is great value in McGhee’s book, but extracting it at the time when it is most needed may simply be too much for many soon-to-be-ex-couples to manage.

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