Henry Winkler Gives Kids a Dyslexic Hero to Relate To

The "Happy Days" star talks about growing up dyslexic and "Here's Hank," his funny book series about a smart, plucky kid with learning differences.
Regan McMahon Senior Editor, Books | Mom of two Categories: Special Needs, We Recommend
Senior Editor, Books | Mom of two

You know him as the Fonz from Happy Days and other film and TV roles, including recurring characters on Parks and Recreation and Arrested Development. But when he's not acting, Henry Winkler's busy writing children's novels, promoting literacy, and advocating for kids with learning differences.

With Lin Oliver, Winkler has co-written 26 novels for children over the past 10 years, including a multi-volume series starring "Hank Zipzer, the World's Greatest Underachiever." Hank is dyslexic, as is Winkler. His funny character and stories are inspired by Winkler's own experiences as a kid who struggled in school and learned differently from others. The Hank Zipzer series starts with Hank in fourth grade and continues until he moves on to middle school. In the new Here's Hank series, launched this spring with Here's Hank: Bookmarks Are People Too and Here's Hank: A Short Tale About a Long Dog, Hank's in second grade. And the text is in a font specially designed to be easier for dyslexics to read. 

Winkler's also currently starring in¬†Hank Zipzer, a sitcom¬†based on the books that¬†airs on¬†CBBC¬†in England, where he's received honors for his literacy work.¬†We spoke with him by phone at his home in Los Angeles the day before he flew to England to shoot the show's second season and start his eighth book tour in the country.‚Äč

In the Hank Zipzer show, you play a teacher named Mr. Rock, based on your real-life teacher, right?

Yes, he was my music teacher. He said, "Winkler, if you ever get out of here, you're going to be OK." I held that in my heart, because I was in the bottom 3 percent of students in America. But now I'm living my dream since I was 7. For me, that's an amazing accomplishment all on its own. 

When did you find out you were dyslexic? 

I was 31, and my stepson was in the third grade and had to write a report about the Native American Hopi tribe, and he couldn't do it. I said to him all the things my dad said to me: "You're being lazy. Go back upstairs and try again." But then we took him to get tested, and everything they said about him applied to me. In the Hank Zipzer TV show, when Hank gets confused, it switches to animation, showing the words floating on the page like little dolphins.

Our other two children are also learning challenged, and they've done really well. My son is a director, producer, and screenwriter, and my daughter is an extraordinary preschool teacher who works with children on the autism spectrum. 

Were your parents understanding when you were struggling? 

It's OK that they didn't understand about dyslexia, but they didn't understand me as a whole, as a person. I made a choice early on that I would be a totally different kind of parent, and our children could say whatever was on their minds. I truly believe that a heard child is a powerful child. 

What strategies did you use for learning and reading? 

I learned mainly through listening. The beginning and end of a relationship is learning to hear. And I taught myself to speed-read by reading down the middle of the page and picking up the most important words. I also found I could read thrillers -- Daniel Silva, Lee Child, Lisa Gardner. 

The granddaddy of your life force is your tenacity, your will. Where there's a will, there's a way. And really understanding gratitude allows you to not be angry along the way. Just because you have a difficulty in an area doesn't mean you can't figure out how to overcome it. 

After having such trouble reading, it's quite a victory to become a successful author. 

For someone who was told he was not getting out of high school, it's not bad. I do take some delight in the fact that it happened to the horse nobody bet on. 

I always tell children: School does not define us. It has nothing to do with how brilliant you really are. I took geometry four years in high school -- the same class. I was frustrated, I got grounded. Then, finally, in the summer after senior year, I got a D-minus and got my diploma, but I could not graduate with my class.

I started my professional career June 30, 1970, and not one human being since that day has said "hypotenuse" to me. What the hell were they thinking? We have to start teaching children how they can learn, not what we think they should learn. 

What do you hope kids will take away from reading the Here’s Hank books? 

That you can go anywhere in the universe without ever leaving your chair -- that reading is so fun. That the character Hank Zipzer shows them there's more than one way to solve a problem -- your imagination will help you figure that out. That Hank's glass is half full -- he just spills it everywhere.

Kids identify with Hank whether they have learning difficulties or not, and they love that Hank has two good friends who don't judge him. And they're¬†not¬†dyslexic;¬†they're good at everything. ‚Äč

What kind of feedback do you get from parents? 

We just started out to write funny books about how it feels to be a kid like Hank, so they're emotionally honest. We've gotten letters from parents for the past 10 years telling us, "My kid just read his (or her) first book. I heard my child laughing out loud, reading your book." It doesn't get any better than that. 

Tell us in the comments below about your experience with learning differences. Or share with us your memories of Henry Winkler's work. 

About Regan McMahon

Regan has been reviewing children's books for more than a decade. A journalist and former book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, she cites as one of her toughest assignments having to read and review the 784-page... Read more

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