If you thought Winnie Cooper was cool in The Wonder Years (1988-1993), just look at her now. Danica McKellar is a bona fide math whiz, and she’s written best-selling math books for girls.
After her run as Kevin Arnold’s love-interest/buddy on the classic 80s sitcom The Wonder Years, McKellar went to UCLA. She explains on her website (www.danicamckellar.com) that she was afraid of math, but took some classes to challenge herself. It’s a good thing she was willing to take that challenge, because she loved math so much that she ended up graduating summa cum laude with a degree in Mathematics from UCLA. And impressively, she co-authored a mathematical physics theorem, known as the Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem.
McKellar was driven by her discovery that she was good at math after all. She used this breakthrough as a basis for a book for 9-12-year-old girls, called Math Doesn’t Suck: How to survive middle school math without losing your mind or breaking a nail. It was published in 2007 and became a New York Times Bestseller. She followed it up with 2008’s Kiss My Math: Showing pre-algebra who’s boss, for girls 13-15, which also spent time on the bestseller list, and in August of 2010 she released Hot X: algebra exposed! for girls 16-18.
All of these books are an amazing combination of smart and cool, just like Winnie herself (and Danica, evidently!). They’re math books, so they have tutoring tips, lessons and math problems, but they are written like teen magazines, with quizzes and horoscopes and big-sisterly advice. And all the advice comes down to the same general message: Smart is sexy. It’s desirable to be seen as smart and good at math. Don’t question yourself, and never, ever, downplay your intelligence.
This twist in her career explains exactly why I so admire McKellar. As an 80s girl myself, and roughly the same age as she, I thought her Winnie Cooper was a great character. She was so normal—not too gorgeous, but definitely cute, smart, and a friend as well as a “girlfriend.” She didn’t just moon over Kevin, like some peripheral girl in a stereotypical sit-com, but she had her own interests, personality, and stories. She was strong.
And I love that McKellar has used that character’s strengths to help young girls gain confidence in math and growing up in general. Just as Winnie was a solid 80s role model for girls, so is Danica a solid 10s role model for girls. What a Wonder-ful accomplishment.