This is a very original approach to mathematics. Dr. Schmidt is a math teacher and he has seen how boring traditional math books are to students and how they fail to explain why mathematics (or, in this case, algebra) is necessary for nearly any job and is required by virtually all universities prior to admission. He wrote Life of Fred: Beginning Algebra to show that math is part of life, not isolated from life.
Fred, the main character in this book, is a 5-year-old genius and professor at Kittens University. In the beginning of chapter 1, he is dreaming about a rose garden. As he dreams he explains infinite and finite numbers, natural numbers, whole numbers, integers, negative numbers, ratios, and the empty set. Throw in a few other interesting facts (about famous North Dakotans, for instance) and humorous tidbits (such as how you can't, when counting moose, have a negative moose) and you can see this is not your typical math text. It is actually interesting to read, and it explains things very simply using examples that show how this knowledge will be used in a real-life setting. However, the student is not talked down to; an adult-level vocabulary is used.
And, further, the book is not just about algebra. Paintings, poems, vocabulary words, and spelling rules crop up from time to time. Fred is also a Christian, and that fact comes out in his musings as well (though not in a preachy way).
The 305-page book has 12 chapters, and each chapter has multiple sets of exercises. A section in the back of the book (called "A.R.T."--All Reorganized Together) has the formulas and condensed "how-to" for reference. Chapter titles are as follows: Numbers and Sets, The Integers, Equations, Motion and Mixture, Two Unknowns, Exponents, Factoring, Fractions, Square Roots, Quadratic Equations, Functions and Slope, and Inequalities and Absolute Value. I contacted the author, Dr. Schmidt to ask about the levels. He does not have a Pre-algebra or Algebra 1/2 course. He considers pre-algebra to be nothing more then ordinary math. His Beginning Algebra is first-year algebra, and his Advanced Algebra text is second-year algebra.
An additional gem that coordinates with this text is Fred's Home Companion--Beginning Algebra. It is a study guide that breaks up the Beginning Algebra book into 108 daily readings. This means that with daily use the entire book could be finished over the course of one summer. Also in this Home Companion are the answers for all of the end-of-the-chapter problems, whereas in the textbook, only 60% of the questions show answers. There are also additional problems that can be used if a student has trouble with a particular concept. Dr. Schmidt emphasizes that the Home Companion is not necessary. However, some parents may wish to use the textbook problems without answers for test purposes, and the Home Companion would serve as an answer key for those. The Home Companion price is $14, but it is not available on the website. To obtain the Home Companion, contact Dr. Schmidt in writing or by phone. (This precaution is intended to prevent a student from getting the answers to all the questions without the teacher's knowledge.)
The copyright on the text is 2002, and the Home Companion copyright is 2005. According to one user, her children are still not math fans, but they are getting through the subject much easier than they did using other textbooks. Because this program is fairly new, I could not find many reviews out there. But the few I found were unanimously positive.
Despite scant evidence of its effectiveness, I will conditionally recommend this book for those ready for algebra. I personally intend to give it a full test as soon as my son is ready for algebra in a couple of years.