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Henry Winkler: Dyslexic Celebrity, Children’s Author

Special needs stories-Special education stories

Best known as Arthur Fonzarelli, aka “The Fonz,” on the classic television show Happy Days, Henry Winkler is also co-author, with Lin Oliver, of a series of books about an imaginative, dyslexic fourth-grader named Hank Zipzer. The titles of Hank’s adventures include, The Night I Flunked My Field Trip, I Got a “D” In Salami, and The Curtain Went Up, My Pants Fell Down. Winkler also speaks frequently about learning disabilities and about his own struggles with dyslexia. NCLD honored Henry Winkler with the Children’s Advocacy Award at its 27th Annual Benefit Dinner in 2004.

In this interview, Winkler talks about how he and Oliver go about bringing Hank Zipzer’s adventures to life. Read an excerpt from The Night I Flunked My Field Trip.

What has it been like writing the Hank Zipzer book series? Has becoming an author been something of a vindication for you?
If you had told me that I was going to end up writing at all, I would never have believed you. It wasn’t something I ever thought, “Hmm, I’m going to have to do that one day.” Though whenever I’ve picked up a book on astrology (one of those big coffee-table books that have all the astrological information for each day), it always says for my birthday that I’m a writer. And I’d always thought that was very funny. And now here we are, my co-author Lin Oliver and me, with yet another book in the series. [The 17th was published in 2010.]

What are your working methods like?
When I’m working on my own, writing at home for example, I write longhand and then Lin’s assistant types it up into some kind of readable shape. But when Lin and I write together, she sits at the computer and we talk out what each chapter is going to be about, then I start talking and she types it in, and then we re-do it and fight over every word. It’s very much like improv or sketch comedy, it’s very much a collaboration. And I’m really proud of what we've accomplished with the books. Our imaginations have become intertwined. I also really love the way we’re using the language, it has a beautiful flow for me.

How much of what happens to Hank is based on your own personal experience and on incidents from your life?
You can safely say that I’m pretty much Hank Zipzer. He’s a bit more self-possessed than I was then, but the general run of experiences is the same, the things he has to face each day and the problems his learning disabilities cause for him are the same problems I faced when I was in school.

Do you have a message for all the Hank and Henrietta Zipzers who are out there right now, going through the same things you went through when you were young?
The most important thing I can tell you is to never stop believing in yourself. There are going to be times when school is tough, when life is tough, but you can always get through it and you’ll be better for it in the end. I had trouble with reading, spelling and math. I had trouble embracing the whole concept of math; I couldn’t even begin to figure out how to figure it out. But I wouldn't be who I am [today] if I hadn’t gone through what I did. I’m very grateful for the struggle, because the struggle made me who I am. Although it will take a lot of hard work, if you believe in yourself and believe that you can succeed, there’s no limit to what you’ll be able to do.


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