Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

May 8, 2008

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

By Bethany Bray

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.

Hilarity ensues as Hank's model of Niagara Falls floods the classroom.

"The emotion, the frustration, the trying to figure out how to solve the problem is very real. We have all lived it. But the humor is exaggerated," Winkler said of the book series.

SIDEBAR

The Townsman talked with Winkler last week over the phone from his Los Angeles home, for a Q&A about Hank Zipzer, coming to Andover and living with dyslexia.

What's new and different about Hank in "The Life of Me," your 14th book?

It's longer, double-sized and it's yellow and black — we've never used yellow and black before (laughs).

Hank has his first crush. (Writing about that) is different because you don't want it to be mushy, but you want it to be realistic. She is such a cool girl and her name is Zoe, my daughter's name. Zoe is 27 and a preschool teacher.

What of your own personality do you see in Hank?

Hank is based on me, on my inability to learn, my difficulty. The pressure that I felt, wanting so badly to do well, and not understanding why my brain wasn't working like everyone else's. That reality connects with over 2 million readers, from moms, teachers, librarians to kids that know someone with that challenge (of a learning disability).

My imagination has personality, and my brain is a little reluctant.

It's amazing to me — the letters we get, and people write, "I didn't find one chapter, one paragraph boring," or, "I laughed so hard that my funny bone fell out of my body."

If Lin (Oliver, his co-author) and I don't laugh (when we're writing together), it doesn't go in the book. Hank doesn't say, "Woe is me, I've got a challenge." It's, "Hey, what do I do know?"

Hank has perseverance. I believe perseverance is a cornerstone for living.

Whenever I speak, my theme is a quote from Theodor Herzl — I think he said this in 1946 — "If you will it, it is not a dream." I repeat that over and over again.

How does Hank's character connect with readers who have dyslexia or learning disabilities themselves?

It somehow connects with Asperger's syndrome, also high-functioning autistic kids. They've stopped me on the street (to talk about the books). They can clearly see in their mind's eye how Hank feels. That is one of the magnets of the book.

The emotion, the frustration, the trying to figure out how to solve the problems is very real. We have all lived it. The humor is exaggerated.

How did you discover you had dyslexia at age 31?

We took my stepson, Jed, to see the Hopi nation in Arizona because he was studying it for school.

He is unbelievably verbal, but could only write two sentences about our trip. I started in with all the things my parents used to say to me — "Go to your room," and all that.

We had him tested for dyslexia, and everything they said about him was true about me. I had never heard of dyslexia before that. If I bought a piece of pizza, and paid with paper money, had no idea if the change they gave me back was right. That was through my 20s and 30s.

Now, I read thrillers (novels) and I've taught myself to speed read. But reading out loud is still out of the question. I invented the concept of stumbling!

What comes through with Hank is that tenacity. That there is more than one way to solve a problem, and you can come out the other side by using your gifts.

What is your favorite thing about being an author?

My favorite thing is when I get in my car to go to Lin's office, and I have no ideas.

I leave Lin's office and have seven or eight pages in my hands that have made us laugh, or just touches me in some way.

My second favorite thing is meeting the parents and kids who love Hank. They are passionate about him. They know every detail, every mistake.

Talk about your writing process. You don't type?

No, I don't type. Lin sits at her computer, and I walk around on the rug, or sit on the couch or chair in her office. The floor in her office is parquet squares, and I try to fit my shoes in the squares and walk without touching lines.

You'll be in Andover on Mother's Day. Do you have any Mother's Day plans with your family?

I've already ordered the flowers, and they're bigger than usual.

If the character Hank Zipzer and the character of the Fonz from "Happy Days" were to meet, would they be friends?

Oh, the Fonz reads Hank. He writes me a note after each book.

They would be friends. The Fonz would take care of Hank the way that (Hank's friends) Ashley and Frankie do. The Fonz would take good care of him.

Readers love that his friends don't judge him, and watch out for him the way he does for them.

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READERBOXES:

Q: What Is Dyslexia?

A: Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin.

It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. ... Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

Studies show that individuals with dyslexia process information in a different area of the brain than do non-dyslexics.

Many people who are dyslexic are of average to above average intelligence.

— Source: the International Dyslexia Association, www.interdys.org.

Winkler's visit sold out

Winkler's talk and book signing, hosted by the Andover Bookstore, will be held at Old Town Hal, 20 Main St., on May 11.

Tickets for Winkler's Andover appearance went on sale Monday, April 7, and the bookstore sold out in 10 days. Only 200 tickets were sold for the event due to space constraints at Old Town Hall, also known as the Town House, said John Hugo, manager at Andover Bookstore.

On Mother's Day, Winkler will speak for approximately 15 minutes about his book series, and will be available for autographs and photos afterward, Hugo said. Tickets were $8, which included a copy of "The Life of Me," the 14th book in Winkler's children's book series, released May 1.

Henry Winkler, aka "the Fonz"

r Diagnosed at age 31 as dyslexic

r Undergraduate degree from Emerson College in Boston, Master of Fine Arts from Yale School of Drama

r Lives in Los Angeles with his wife

r Has three grown children

r Besides his turn as the motorcycle-riding, shark-jumping Fonzarelli, Winkler's more famous acting roles include turns as a college football coach in the Adam Sandler movie "The Waterboy," and as the Bluth family's lawyer on the TV series "Arrested Development."