Henry Winkler: The Fonz
for a New Generation
by Ellen Parlapiano
Henry Winkler became famous in the 1970s, playing The Fonz on TV’s long-running sit com Happy Days. But kids today know him best for his role as an author. The award-winning actor and director co-authors the children’s book series, Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever, inspired by his experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia. Now the Honorary Chairman of Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities, he recently talked with us about the books, and why he writes them.
SK: How much of the Hank Zipzer character is really you?
Henry Winkler: The humor is exaggerated. But the emotion is real. I write exactly what goes on in my mind, and it helps the young readers relate it to their lives. The greatest compliment I get from kids I meet is, “That stuff could happen!”
SK: What was school like for you as a child?
HW: I always felt like there was this intricate net inside my body holding me back from getting to the top of my head. It was like swimming upstream. I just couldn’t get to the surface.
SK: Did you find ways to compensate for your learning differences?
HW: Not growing up, but I have found some useful strategies along the way as an adult. It’s important to figure out someone who can help you with the things that are hard. I’m not a good speller, so my co-author, Lin Oliver, types all of our books on the computer. In each one, Hank has these wonderful friends who support him. Young readers love those friends, because they don’t judge Hank —they accept and appreciate him, no matter how exasperating he can be. Even Hank’s sister reads scripts with him so he can learn his lines for the school play.
SK: Did you ever expect in your wildest dreams that you could write a book?
HW: Never. There was a time when it was hard for me to read a book, so it is monumental to be able to write one.
SK: How did it come about?
HW: A few years ago my agent suggested I consider writing children’s books about my dyslexia. At first I said no, because deep down I still thought I was too stupid and too lazy, and that I wouldn’t have anything valuable to say. Fortunately, he asked me again about two years later, and introduced me to Lin Oliver over lunch. We hatched the Hank Zipzer series by the end of the meal.
SK: Are the books your proudest achievement?
HW: I think that they are. The feeling of knowing that I did them is just indescribable. Though I love The Fonz, and my other projects, the books show kids that they are not alone, no matter what their learning challenge.
SK: Did you have a mentor who helped you uncover your talents?
HW: Mr. Rock in the book was actually my music teacher in high school, who told me, “I believe you will be great.” But there were other teachers who thought I would never graduate, saying things like, “If you ever get out of here, you’ll be OK.”
SK: How has school changed today for children with learning differences?
HW: I have met these incredible, dedicated, gentle, caring teachers, who understand the child who learns differently and love him and all his idiosyncrasies. Now that’s a change!
SK: What’s your best advice for parents of kids with learning challenges?
HW: Be proud of your child at this moment. My parents got proud when I was on TV, but by then it was too late. I needed them to be proud when I felt lost.
SK: And what’s your best advice to children with learning differences?
HW: It does not matter how you learn. It does not diminish in any way how brilliant you are. You have greatness in you. Your job is to figure out what your gift is and give it to the world.