Zibby Owens: I had the best time interviewing Danica McKellar about her latest book called The Times Machine! Danica is best-known, probably, as her role as Winnie in The Wonder Years. At least, I watched every single episode of The Wonder Years. I’m wondering if maybe you did too. Anyway, she played Winnie. Since then, she has started something called McKellar Math. It’s beyond impressive. She found her own math theorem, spoke before the congressional committee in 2007 about why kids’ math scores are far behind those in other countries and how we should really start in middle school targeting kids for math. She wrote all these different books. This is actually her tenth math book. She wrote Math Doesn’t Suck. She wrote Kiss My Math, Hot X: Algebra Exposed, Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape. She’s written children’s books, ten different books for every age of the spectrum. She’s a summa cum laude graduate of UCLA with a degree in math and also still an actress. She was on The West Wing. She was on Project Mc2, which my daughter loves. She’s just a total rockstar and has dedicated her free time, when she’s not homeschooling her son or being an actress, to writing math books to make math cool and teach kids everything they need to know. Thank you to Danica for coming on the show, for inventing McKellar Math, and helping so many kids and families get through the stress of learning math together. I hope you enjoy our episode. I had the best time talking to her.

Welcome, Danica. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Danica McKellar: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure.

Danica: It’s true. It’s true. I’m a mom.

Zibby: Right?

Danica: Yeah. I only have one kid, so I can’t even imagine.

Zibby: I think no matter how many kids you have, it’s like a piece of dough that fills a baking tray. Do you know what I mean? No matter what you have, everything gets filled to the brim as soon as you have one child.

Danica: It’s probably also because I homeschool my one child, so that’s more time consuming.

Zibby: Actually, I wanted to talk about that now that I spent a few months sort of homeschooling with the pandemic. How did you decide to homeschool? I want to talk, obviously, about your books, but how did you decide to homeschool your son?

Danica: I’d already been writing math books at that point. I already had a really solid understanding of what I thought needed to get taught in math, but that was aside the point. I had him in preschool. He was bored. He just wasn’t connecting. He was having fun with his extracurricular activities, but not that. We’re like, he’s in preschool. We could do this. So I started doing homeschooling stuff with him and loved it. You have time to go on field trips, whether it’s the Discovery Cube or some other fun museum, hands-on learning, figure out stuff on your own. So many fun YouTube videos out there teaching all sorts of stuff. There’s a great YouTube called It’s Okay to be Smart, tons of fun science-y things. I love learning. Obviously, I love learning and teaching and that stuff, so it’s extra-fun for me. I thought, we’ll do this for as long as it makes sense. It has continued to make sense. It’s continued to go well. He continues to have lots of social time with kids in his extracurriculars. Look, I’m his mom, so he’s now doing eighth-grade math. I can’t help it. He’s doing algebra. It’s super fun. I actually swore that I wouldn’t push him. He just happens to really like math and really have a mind for it. I’m thinking maybe he got that from me. It’s really, really, really fun to just see the lightbulbs go out. I love teaching him.

Zibby: He’s only nine and he’s doing eighth-grade math?

Danica: Yeah. Well, beginning eighth-grade math. We just started algebra.

Zibby: That counts.

Danica: Regardless, that’s actually not something that was a goal or is even important. It’s not, actually at all, important. It just happens to be. Like when you do yoga, they say it doesn’t matter how flexible you are. As long as you’re feeling a stretch, you’re getting what you need to get out of it. Just like with that, with learning, it’s not about the stuff you learn. It’s about how you learn so that later in life you can learn whatever your new job is or learn new coping skills for whatever situation you’re put it or whatever it is. It’s about learning how to learn. The fact that he’s doing algebra doesn’t matter at all. It doesn’t put him ahead of anybody. It really doesn’t. It’s just fun.

Zibby: I feel like there was some headbutting, maybe because my kids weren’t used to my trying to make them learn.

Danica: There’s headbutting in all of life when you’re a mom. Brush your teeth, time to go bed, it’s all the same stuff. However, when it comes to homeschooling, I have come up with many techniques and things that have been really useful. If you go to my Instagram profile — I’m just @DanicaMcKellar. If you go to the highlights, those little circles on the profile, I have one that says schooling at home. It’s ton of tips, the videos that I made, even some with Draco where we act out stuff that we do. We can go into more of the details since we have time on this podcast too. If people want to go check that out, it’s a good resource that I put there because I know that a lot of parents are doing summer stuff and might be doing stuff in the fall too, might be doing stuff all next year. Who knows?

Zibby: Say it isn’t so. Say it isn’t so.

Danica: The point is, I’m here to help.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I will definitely go to your highlights. I’ve gone to your Instagram, of course, but I haven’t gotten all those tips. Now I’m thrilled to have a resource because I was feeling a little overwhelmed even just trying to get them to read this summer. I read all the time. You do math. I read all the time. I just want them to love what I love. Sometimes that doesn’t always work. Anyway, it’s great to know about the highlights. You majored in math. First of all, you were Winnie on The Wonder Years. You’re probably sick of talking about that. I can only imagine.

Danica: I think I went through a phase when I was sick of hearing about The Wonder Years. Then I realized, duh, this is this beautiful gift. People loved the show. I didn’t play some annoying character that people like to make fun of. I played a character that people love, and a show that people watch together as a family. These same parents are familiar with me. They’re buying my math books for their kids because they trust me because they know me from it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful gift. I don’t take it for granted anymore like I did when I was fifteen when I was over it. That was in the middle of the show when I was like, ugh, I’m done with this. No, you’re not. It’s a beautiful path that has led me to where I am now.

Zibby: That’s a great perspective on it. I shouldn’t have assumed you were sick of talking about it. I don’t even know why I assumed that.

Danica: Most people do. I understand why. I mean, it’s been thirty years.

Zibby: Actually, as I was preparing for this, I was like, I should show my kids The Wonder Years. I never think to go back and play older shows for them. Instead, they’re Netflix, whatever. Now I’m going to go — this is perfect. It’s a perfect age.

Danica: The Wonder Years is, I believe, on Hulu, but they don’t have the original music. However, you can get the DVDs. The DVDs are full. They have the right theme song for the show, which they don’t have on Hulu. They have the right music for all the background Motown hits. They’re very expensive. It actually took almost twenty-five years, I think it did take twenty-five years, for the show to end up on DVD because nobody wanted to fork out the money to pay the upfront licensing fees for all these amazing Motown hits. They really are a character in the show. The music is a character in the show. Finally, somebody decided to do it. Now it’s available.

Zibby: Amazing. I don’t even have a DVD player anymore. Do you have a DVD player?

Danica: Yeah. Really, you don’t?

Zibby: I don’t think I have one anymore.

Danica: The Blu-ray player plays DVDs.

Zibby: That’s true. I’ll figure it out. I’ll find a way to do it because now I’m on a mission. Meanwhile, my daughter who’s thirteen who I read — she and girlfriend did the whole Times Machine! book with me, your latest book. I made them do all the exercises and read all the graphic novel-ish parts of it. They loved it. Then when I showed a picture of you to my daughter, she’s like, “Wait a minute. I know her. She’s from Project Mc2,” which was her favorite show which I hadn’t realized. She even had the notebooks for all of our — anyway, we have Project Mc2 stuff everywhere. I did not even realize you were in that because I never watched it with her, which is another, probably, bad parenting moment.

Danica: No, no, no. That’s a really fun show, Project Mc2. It’s like Charlie’s Angels for teenage girls. I play the Charlie. I’m the one who gives them their missions. Girls, your mission today is the prince is in trouble, you must save him, whatever it is. They use science and math, but mostly science and logical problem-solving skills, to solve crimes. It’s really fun. They’re super glamorous, but they also really love being smart. One of the mottos of the show was smart is the new cool. I love that. It’s actually right in line with the books that I wrote for her age, in fact. If she’s thirteen, then Kiss My Math would be the right book for her.

Zibby: I went online. All your books are on the way, every one of them. Not the baby — although, I have younger kids too. I got them Ten Magic Butterflies. Kiss My Curves or something, I was like, look at all these awesome covers.

Danica: Kiss My Math.

Zibby: Right, Kiss My Math.

Danica: Kiss My Math is the pre-algebra one. It’s Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss. Then the Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape, that’s the high school geometry book. Bathtime Mathtime is also a really fun one for your little ones. I don’t know if you saw that one.

Zibby: I did. They’re a little old, but that’s perfect for some nieces and nephews and stuff.

Danica: I don’t even know. How old are your kids?

Zibby: I have twins who are thirteen, boy and girl. Then I have an almost-seven-year-old, next week she’ll be seven, and a five-and-a-half-year-old boy.

Danica: The five-year-old, Ten Magic Butterflies. Then the almost-seven-year-old would be Do Not Open This Math Book. Here, this one. Do Not Open This Math Book is addition, subtraction.

Zibby: Yes, I got that one.

Danica: Oh, good, for your almost-seven-year-old.

Zibby: Yes, that was for her, my littler one. It’s not often that I can talk to an author who has something for every child of mine. This is pretty impressive.

Danica: You know what? It’s been almost thirteen years now of writing books. This is book number ten. The Times Machine!, the one that’s just come out, is book number ten for McKellar Math. If you go to mckellarmath.com, you’ll see all the books from ages zero to sixteen and a big slider button that shows you, depending on your child’s age, which book is the most appropriate. This was a dream of mine two years ago. I’m like, I want a slider button. I was like, wait, I’m coming to point where I’ve got this critical mass of books for all these different ages. I want to make sure people know which one is best for their kid.

Zibby: I am your prime target for the slider thing. That was perfect for me. I loved it. Thank you for putting that on your site. That was great.

Danica: My pleasure.

Zibby: Why did you decide to write all these books? I know you majored in math and everything. What made you want to teach other people? What made you want to do it in book form? What made you want to turn math into something cool, honestly?

Danica: Back in the year 2000, which is twenty years ago now, I was asked to speak in front of a subcommittee of congress about the importance of women in mathematics. Since we’re on a podcast, I can tell you the whole story. They were actually trying to get me to — it was a commission that was formed to try to get more money for women in college, so stipends and things and scholarships. They sent me this hundred-page report of all the numbers, all the documents and all the studies and the graphs and showing all these — at this point, I’d graduated from UCLA, had a degree in mathematics. All these articles were coming out, like, Winnie is a math whiz. People were coming up to me in the street and not just saying, “Hey, we loved you on The Wonder Years,” but “Why did you study math? Why would you do that to yourself?” So many women would say, “I could never do math. I had this one teacher, this one test. I did fine. Then there was this one experience, and I never looked back. It was just too bad. I couldn’t do it from then on.” I saw all this failure and defeat.

Then when I spoke in front of congress and studied this report, I became crystal clear that middle school is the time when most young girls start to lose confidence in math, not their grades. They’re doing just fine, but they lose some confidence. That’s the beginning of the end because when you lose your confidence, you’re telling yourself a story. We all tell ourselves stories, the story of our own life. We repeat it many, many times. Then we find evidence to fulfill that story, whatever it is. That’s how people get stuck. This is one of those things that people get stuck in, whether it’s because they are afraid of not being popular because they think that if they’re smart then they’ll be intimidating to their friends, they’ll lose their friends, or if they see all of the archetypes of the nerdy math student, “I don’t want to be nerdy.” When you’re in middle school, that’s the time when math gets more complicated and also when your hormones are just rushing around. You’re confused. You’re trying to figure out who you are.

After studying all this stuff about it, I go to congress. I have four minutes to give my speech. My speech was, by college, it’s too late. Inadvertently helping them to fail this request for more money, I was like, it’s too late by then. Middle school’s the time. You want to put more money into middle school. Give the teachers better incentives in middle school. Let’s hire some more. You get what you pay for. If you want really quality teachers, you’ve got to pay a little bit more. I’m like, that’s the logic. Let’s focus the extra money there. I got so into this and was so obsessed with understanding when happens at that age. Just a few years later, I had a publicist say, “Hey, you should write a book for girls in math.” I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know,” but it was sort of percolating. Then an article came out about me in The New York Times, front page of the science section of The New York Times. This is 2005. I’ll never forget it. I helped to coauthor a theorem, to prove a new theorem in college. It was like, “Actress becomes superstar in math between series.” At that point, I was on The West Wing again. I was on The Wonder Years. Then I wrote this theorem. Then I was on The West Wing. And so this article was like, “In between series, Danica McKellar becomes a superstar in math.” After that came out, a couple different book agents reached out to my manager and said, “Would she like to write a book? We think she’s an author of some sort.”

I remembered back to what that publicist had said. I was thinking, wait a minute, I know exactly who I’d write books for. It’d be middle-school girls. I just knew. I always loved learning that math. I always come up with fun little ways of remembering things. Writing that first book, Math Doesn’t Suck, I remember the feeling very distinctly. It was like I’d been waving my arms around and somebody picked up me and put me in the water and I was already swimming. I knew what I needed to say. I knew how I wanted to say it. The book just flew. I just wrote it. I spent a lot of time with it, but it was just effortless. Hundreds of pages, super fun stuff, cute little characters, confidence-boosting sidebars all throughout, quotes from girls about math, I loved writing that book. I thought that would be the book. I didn’t know there were going to be more. That book took off. This was 2007 when it came out. I was person of the week on ABC World News with Charles Gibson. It was crazy. Newsweek, you name it, I was all over the place. The books sold crazy numbers, especially for a math book. They’re like, “We’d like you to do another one.” I was like, what? Huh? They’re like, “We want it to come out next year.” They had given me four months only to write the next one, but I knew what to do and I was excited about it.

I wrote Kiss My Math. Kiss My Math might be my favorite book, that one and The Times Machine! These are my two favorites that I’ve written, I think, in terms of the content and how useful I really know they are. I was really able to get to the nitty-gritty of things and make it fun. In Kiss My Math, I remember talking integers. Super boring name, right? So how about, let’s not call them integers. Let’s call them mint-egers. They’re minty. The positive mint-egers are the ones that taste really good. The negative mint-egers are those yucky jellybean flavors, the Harry Potter boogers and whatever. You can combine a positive mint-eger and a negative mint-eger together, and they neutralize each other. I had so much fun coming up with creative ways of making dry, boring material fun. That’s really been my challenge. I love a good challenge. That’s why I was a math major in college in the first place. I love, well, this looks nearly impossible. I think I’d be a good candidate for, I double-dog dare you. If I see something looks really hard, that makes it interesting. Anyway, I’ve just had so much fun channeling all of this into these books to really be a helpful resource. This is for years now.

When common core came out a few years back and all the parents were like, oh, my gosh, what is this? that’s what I started writing Do Not Open This Math Book. That’s for ages first and second grade because there’s all these weird ways they’re teaching adding and subtracting. You’d think that would be the easy stuff, but parents were telling me, “I can’t help my six-year-old with her homework. What is going on?” I tackled that. This book took me three years to write with all the illustrations. I couldn’t believe nobody else came out with anything in the meantime. Nobody came out with a fun, easy guide for parents who are struggling with common core math. Why not? I figured I’d be in line with a bunch of other books. Nope, and nothing really has been done since. If you are struggling with your six or seven-year-old with their weird addition and subtraction techniques, Do Not Open This Math Book is the one that I wrote for that. In the back of it, there is a new math translation guide for grown-ups, all the new terms. There is no borrowing and carrying. It’s regrouping. Then same thing with The Times Machine! So The Times Machine! is really the follow-up to Do Not Open This Math Book. The Times Machine! is for third and fourth grade. It’s the same characters, the little Mr. Mouse and the little Danica characters from Do Not Open This Math Book. It’s got way more comics, though, in it. Because it’s The Times Machine! and we are time traveling after all, teaching multiplication and division with cartoons and comics, graphic novel stuff like you said, we have to time travel. We see the dinosaurs. We meet Jane Goodall briefly. There’s so many fun little things I was able to put in. We travel all over the world, China, India, Mexico, everywhere.

Zibby: I loved the part about the history of how the name bagels came about. I did not know that. That was such a fun fact. I wouldn’t have expected it in a math book.

Danica: I aim to please and surprise.

Zibby: Well, there you go. Check, check plus.

Danica: In The Times Machine! there’s also the new math translation guide for grown-ups in the back, the same thing, tons of new topics. They teach multiplication with arrays now and all these things, and partial products method for multiplication. It’s all there to make sure that parents have a resource, especially these days. It is crazy how much is how on the parents’ shoulders now for teaching their kids. Parents, in an unprecedented way, are responsible for their kids’ education. I’m thrilled that my books are here as a resource. In particular, The Times Machine!, third and fourth grade, fills out now the entire span of ages. Now I actually have books for every age between zero and sixteen. It couldn’t have happened at a better time for parents.

Zibby: What you should really do is sell it as a box set. Then when somebody has a baby, you could be like, here is the box set. This is all you will need. Put it in the library for the rest of your life. Your kids will learn as they go and then have it all ready.

Danica: That’s right. Yes, good idea.

Zibby: Of course, with your output, you’ll probably have like twenty more books by the time their kids got older, so never mind. That’s a bad idea.

Danica: I don’t know. I’m working on one right now. It’s a picture book for 2022. But in terms of curriculum, I’m done. From zero to sixteen, it’s covered. I filled in all the holes. I’m feeling really good about that.

Zibby: It was good too because when I grew up, I didn’t learn about arrays. That wasn’t the way we were taught. I asked my daughter when we were looking at it, I was like, “Is this the way you learned? Did you do arrays?” She’s like, “Of course,” like, duh. I’m like, okay. It’s a translation, how to talk to your kids. I feel like I was good at math, not like you, but I did fine. I took math in college. I was fine at math. Anytime I go to show my daughter, she’s like, “That’s not the way we do it. My teacher won’t like that.” This is very helpful.

Danica: Right, exactly. At the end, it’s the new math translation guide for grown-ups, but all throughout the book I’ll show, hey, this is how we used to do it. Here’s all the side by side of division, that crazy division chart that they do now, the place value chart. Let’s do one problem both ways, long division and with this crazy chart so you can see that you’re really doing the same thing. It just looks different, but it’s actually the same. It’s all the same stuff.

Zibby: I prefer how we did it, but it’s none of my business.

Danica: Me too. You know what? What the new stuff does is it makes it more visual. Then the idea is you take that, and the way we learned it is now a shortcut. Now that you understand what’s going on, now let’s do the shortcut, which is what we learned. That’s kind of how I look at it and the way I treat it in the books so that we do eventually, for each way, for multiplication, with multi-digits, and also long division — of course, I teach the way that we learned as well and show how that is just an extension of what they’re learning now.

Zibby: I think the greatest part is just you being a role model for how math is a great, cool, fun thing. It used to not be that cool. Now with people like you, that’s just the greatest. My daughter often says her favorite subject is math. I’m like, really? Okay.

Danica: That’s so great.

Zibby: It’s just so nice to have this whole renaissance of why math is cool and all the rest.

Danica: Math is very useful in life, with finances. We want to raise generations of kids who are not afraid of the APR on their credit card statement, who understand what the mortgage contract means, and all the rest of it. If you have kids who are afraid of math, they’ll turn into adults who avoid numbers. That’s just not good because you know who doesn’t avoid numbers? The banks, credit card companies. They don’t avoid them. They know what’s going on, and they will rip you off. There’s a very practical reason for being comfortable with numbers and having them be your friend and your ally. Also, just doing problem solving in any form, and math is a great way to exercise that part of your brain, it sharpens your mind. It sharpens your ability to solve any kind of problem, even something that has nothing to do with math or science. You become more logical. You can see, what was I assuming here? What are the actual facts? What’s an emotional response that I’m having versus what’s actually real? which we could all use these days with the news. That kind of skill set and that kind of confidence that comes from feeling smart, that comes from saying, maybe I don’t love math, but I can totally do it, that’s what I want to make sure kids have. If they turn out that they love math, wonderful. Fantastic. Maybe that’s their passion and they would’ve been afraid of it before. Maybe they want to pursue becoming a doctor. That requires calculus in college. Now they’re not afraid of that. It’s not going to get in their way. Really, I just want them to have that confidence that comes from feeling smart and capable and that stuff like that’s not going to get in the way of their dreams.

Zibby: It’s amazing. I feel like now I have to go do some math just to figure out a way to manage my emotional responses to situations. If that’s all I have to do, I would save a lot of money in other pursuits that have tried to get to me to calm down.

Danica: Hey, I have a whole list of books for you.

Zibby: Are you going to write a book for grown-ups, or no?

Danica: The thing is, look, there are a bunch of products I could make, but I’m most interested in making products that I think are really needed. I’m an actress too. I’m busy making movies and stuff. Although, not these days. I’m homeschooling my son. Writing books, it’s a labor of love. It’s not my main thing even though it’s something that I’m so passionate about and I’m thrilled to be able to do it. I don’t want to just make books for books’ sake. I don’t want to make products just because I could. You know what I mean? I want to only create things that are actually filling a need. I don’t know. It would really depend on if I feel there’s a need for something. There probably will be. Is there a need for parents? They say that, but I’m not sure they actually are going to crack open a book. I think they’re going to look at the book they got for their kids and work through it together. That’s my instinct about it. Could I make some fun little stocking stuffer book like The Joy of X with math? There’s kitschy things I could do, but I just don’t know that I want to do that.

Zibby: The only finite resource we have is our time. You have to pick and choose.

Danica: Also, I don’t want to dilute my brand. Oh, yeah, she’ll just do anything with math in it. No, no, no. The stuff that I do is for real helpful, for real inspiration. If something hits me, like, oh, my gosh, I know the thing I need to do for adults, then I’d do it. For now, adults have enough to do. Like you said, moms don’t have time to read. I mean, come on. Let’s get the resources that are going to help save time for parents, save time and make things easier for their kids. Yes, let’s all say it together. Save time.

Zibby: Exactly. Save time. Save time. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Danica: Oh, gosh. Kind of what I was just talking about. Make sure there’s a need for it. If you want to write something, make sure you’re filling some sort of need. Make sure it’s something you’re actually really passionate about. There’s the whole writing a book thing. Then beyond that, you have to sell the book. You got to be ready to talk about this book a lot for years and figure out ways of getting people to hear what you’re saying. That’s the big, big part. First, you have to write a book that’s where you’re super proud of it and it’s actually really quality. Then you have to take that part for granted. Now it’s time to sell it. Now it’s time to put it out there. What my literary agent has told me when I’ve asked her, “Hey, I’ve got a friend who wants to be author,” she always says, “Look, first thing is, in this day and age, you have to have a social media presence.” Whatever it is you want to write about, you have to become that expert for your followers and gain a following. You got to give away a lot of stuff for free. While you’re writing your book, write little tidbits. Spread it around. Find other people in your community, other writers, people who write the same kind of books that you do and retweet their stuff. Praise them. Applaud them. Give out free information for whatever it is. Then hopefully you’ll have a big enough following so that when you finish your book you can go out and find a literary agent who’s interested in representing you because you have a following.

Zibby: Or you could just make your own theorem like you.

Danica: There is the self-publishing route. Of course, you can do that. Even if you do that, you still need to have a following so people will buy your book.

Zibby: Very true. Excellent advice. Amazing. Awesome. Thank you so much. Thanks for all this advice. Thanks for the books that will be arriving at my doorstep any minute to fill every gap in math for every child in my home. We’ll be reading your words for a while.

Danica: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me on this. The full title is The Times Machine!: Learn Multiplication and Division. . . Like, Yesterday!, because of course the time travel involved. I’m so proud of it. It is so fun. The comics are great. Wonderful illustrator, Josee Masse. She did an amazing job. The nuances in the characters’ faces, the humor, because there’s tons of humor throughout the book as you’ve seen, I’m so proud of it. I’m really excited to hear back from parents about it.

Zibby: Aw. It was great. I’m so glad I could get a little advance peek by a day or two. It’s fantastic. Congratulations on your book.

Danica: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care. Thank you.

Danica: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.