"Omigoodness," I think, as I click on a link to the U.K.’s Top Ten Literacy Heroes and watch as a photo of Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Cornwall (that’s Camilla to "People" magazine readers like me) enjoying a chat with Henry Winkler—that’s Fonzie to anyone who ever watched the long running TV series "Happy Days."
Winkler not only has just received a literacy award, a year earlier Queen Elizabeth made him an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) which came with its own medal and places him alongside the likes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Beatle Paul McCartney, his daughter, fashion designer Stella McCartney and actor Ewan McGregor.
Geez, we loved the Fonz and realize the jacket he wore on "Happy Days" now hangs in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.—but a chivalric award for a TV character?
Not exactly—the honor is for Winkler’s commitment to helping dyslexic kids overcome their personal challenges and fears through humor.
Winkler, along with Lin Oliver, writer and producer of movies, books and television series for children and families, who has written more than 25 novels for children and one hundred episodes of television, have co-authored a successful series of books about the challenges of Hank Zipper, a charming, but often befuddled 4th grader with dyslexia.
So far, some 3 million copies of the books have sold and are available in seven languages and there’s also a Hank Zipper TV series in the works. Winkler, a director and producer who also appears on "Arrested Development," "Royal Pains" and "Parks and Recreation," draws upon his own painful experiences of growing up with undiagnosed reading disorders and now spends a great deal of time visiting schools in both this country and abroad to talk about dyslexia.
Dyslexia is a type of reading difficulty where students have trouble learning to decode or read words by associating sounds and letters or letter combinations. Symptoms include slow reading with less fluency meaning that they typical read word-by-word which then makes it more difficult to get meaning from what’s been read. Other signs can be trouble learning to recognize words, have difficulty rhyming and a dislike of reading. According to the U.S. Department of Health, up to 15 percent of the entire population suffers with some form of dyslexia though some put the number much higher.
Now, Oliver and Winkler are about to launch a new series for ages 6 to 8 starring a younger, 2nd grade Hank, entitled "Here’s Hank" (Grosset & Dunlap; $14.98) with slanted letters that can’t be flipped or inverted by the dyslexic mind. The first two books in the series are "Here’s Hank: Bookmarks are People Too!" and "A Short Tale about a Long Dog."
“It was incredibly frustrating,” said Winkler describing what school was like for him. “You think you’re smart, but then you start to believe that what people tell you must be right, that you’re lazy and dumb. Kids know they’re not doing as well as most of the kids in their class and then the adults compound that by labeling them, putting them down, punishing them, yelling at them because they're not learning fast enough. It creates a bad self-image which makes kids try to mask this shame and humiliation in different ways.”
Winkler didn’t discover he was dyslexic until he was in his 30s when his stepson received the diagnosis. It was an “aha” moment in the extreme.
“We thought he just couldn’t write those paragraphs or didn’t pay attention,” said Winkler about his stepson. “He smudged and erased and put holes in the paper. When we took him to be tested, I realized that everything that been said to him applied to me.”
Interestingly, because Winkler couldn’t read and memorize the scripts for "Happy Days," he improvised much of The Fonz’s character.
“I’d be called out for not doing it the way it was written. I’d say I’m just giving you a taste of the character,” said Winkler who applied to 24 colleges and was accepted at only two.
“Henry has a direct connection to the emotional truth of who Hank is and what he goes through,” said Oliver. “What Henry experiences as a kid makes wonderful fodder for our books.”
Both Oliver and Winkler come from a television comedy background and their approach to writing their books is similar.
“Having come out of television where scripts are prepared in a room that’s what we do,” said Oliver. “We write them as if they were a television comedy. When we begin a novel, we beat out the story and then take turns writing chapters and reviewing them.”
As Oliver began to explain how they read aloud what they wrote the day before, Winkler interrupted her, saying, “you read them not me,” you begin to get a sense how the two have created such a funny, sweet-natured series about a serious subject.
“Our goal is to first entertain,” said Winkler who then lists some less than sweet statistics such as about 70 percent of those in prison are dyslexic.
As for Hank, he’s much more upbeat.
“He’s a kid whose glass is half full,” said Winkler. “But unfortunately he keeps spilling it.”