Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

Education

May 8, 2008

Dyslexia and the children's book: Henry Winkler's hero finds unique solutions to school problems

Hear the name Henry Winkler and the first thing you think of is his portrayal of the ever-cool Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli on the television show "Happy Days." But what many people may not know is that Winkler felt anything but cool in school as a child, living with undiagnosed dyslexia until he was 31.

Winkler will be in Andover on Mother's Day, May 11, for a sold-out author's event organized by the Andover Bookstore. He'll be talking about the latest release in his Hank Zipzer series of children's books. Hank, the main character, has a learning disability and learns to adapt and persevere through painfully tough school assignments, just as Winkler did.

As a child growing up in New York City, no one knew what dyslexia was, said Winkler. He struggled in "every subject but lunch," and family and teachers just thought he was not living up to his potential.

The 14th book in Winkler's series, which he co-authors with Lin Oliver, is titled "The Life of Me," and hit store shelves on May 1.

The stories' hero is a fourth-grader pegged as "the world's greatest underachiever." His adventures are inspired by Winkler's childhood. Zipzer lives in the same building Winkler grew up in, on the West Side of New York City. The neighborhood, schools and even one of Zipzer's teachers are taken from Winkler's childhood.

Zipzer sometimes struggles with school assignments, especially writing, as did Winkler. In "The Life of Me," Hank creates a scrapbook for a school assignment instead of a writing assignment, "because writing essays is really difficult," said Winkler.

In "Niagara Falls, or Does It?" the first book in the series, Hank is assigned a five-paragraph essay describing what he did over summer vacation.

Writing five paragraphs, for Hank, is "like climbing Mount Everest with no clothes on," said Winkler. So Hank builds a model of Niagara Falls as a "living essay," explaining and showing what he did on his summer vacation, instead of writing.

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