Most people know Henry Winkler for his iconic role as the Fonz in Happy Days or for his many other acting gigs since. What most people don't know is that Winkler barely graduated high school, and that although he was great at memorizing scripts, reading them was a challenge. He's struggled with dyslexia his entire life, only getting a diagnosis at age 30. Now, he travels around the world talking to kids about his early years and raising dyslexia awareness.
To that end, Winkler has written a wonderful series of children's books about a dyslexic boy named Hank Zipzer. Hank's smart, funny, and resourceful; but, like Winkler as a child, school and reading are a huge challenges for him.
The books are printed in a special font that makes it easier for dyslexic kids to read them, and although they concern the adventures of a dyslexic child, they will appeal to any early-middle grade reader. The newest book, You Can't Drink a Meatball with a Straw comes out March 8, 2016. I highly recommend reading it with your kids— it's laugh-out-loud funny, extremely clever, and you'll find yourself cheering for Hank throughout the story.
I caught up with Winkler recently to talk about his books, parenting, his recent trip to Asia, and more:
How did you get started writing books and what is your writing process like?
I never saw myself writing books—I carried the mantle of being stupid for so long— but an agent suggested it to me, and then I met my wonderful co-writer Lin Oliver, and the rest was history. We work only in person, so every morning since 2003, I've gone to Lin's office for a few hours. I sit in the same rocking chair I've been sitting in for the last 13 years, and we do the outline of the book. We are intertwined in every rhythm, word, and story. I talk and she types, then she reads it back to me, and we argue over every word. We ask questions like, "What does Hank do well?" and then we're always surprised by where the story takes us.
We just started working on a short story for the magazine Boys' Life—which I find incredible because I got my first copy of that magazine years ago when I was a Cub Scout. I couldn't read it at the time, and now here I am writing for them!
What was school like for you as a child?
I remember it all—the shame, the fear, the anxiety, the embarrassment. My brain is like a Magic 8 Ball, sometimes it's all gobbledygook. Sometimes there's no answer there, and sometimes I get it right. When I'm writing the Hank Zipzer books, I relive those moments like I'm 8 years old. I've not forgotten how painful it was to have done things like memorized all my spelling words for a test and then get to school, and not be able to remember any of them.
Is reading easier now?
It really depends on the kind of book. I'm great with thrillers (Daniel Silva is a favorite), and the style of writing can make the work of reading easier. I don't have any favorite children's books because I didn't read as a kid. In fact, when we were reading The Tale of Two Cities in school, I poured water over the pages, so it looked like I was really diving into it.
Would having a dyslexia diagnosis have helped you as a child?
Absolutely, yes. My life was like a stainless steel cylinder with no footholds, no handholds. I tried like a frog to crawl up the wall towards the sun, and kept sliding back down.
How did your own experiences as a child influence your parenting?
My parents were not supportive. [Winkler has said in other interviews that his parents were "emotionally destructive" and that their nickname for him was "dumb dog"].
It was only when I became famous that my parents became supportive, and at that point, I didn't care any more. I remember laying in my bed as a child and thinking: 'They don't hear who I am, and I will never be that kind of parent.'
And I think my wife and I did a good job doing things differently with our children. All of our kids have learning challenges, but my youngest son once said in an interview, "My parents loved me too much."
So, that's a good thing.
Any other thoughts on parenting?
Children remember every kindness, every misunderstanding. I think as parents our job is to prepare our children with support to the very best of our abilities, so they can become who they came into this world to be. Every child is drawn to do something, and it takes a tremendous amount of compulsion, will, and tenacity to make that happen. But parental support can go a long way.
So, what's next?
We're on the 32nd Hank Zipzer book, and there are more Hank stories to write. The books about older Hank are a series on the BBC, which is in its third season.
I've also got several acting projects in the works, including the adventure TV series "Better Late than Never", which is about my journey to Asia with Will Shatner, George Forman, Terry Bradshaw, and Jeff Dye. That's also where I got to meet an elephant, which was truly amazing.
Any final thoughts?
Google elephants playing soccer. It's incredible.
Talking with Henry Winkler was delightful, and I can't wait to read more of his books. I could go on and on about his work, but I'll leave you with my biggest takeaway from our conversation:
We only get a short time with our children, but in that time we can have tremendous impact. As parents, we will have succeeded if our children feel heard because we listen to them; if they feel supported because we accept them for who they are, not who we think they should be; and if they grow into their best selves because we've been there along the way, no matter what challenges they face.