Don’t ask about the Fonz, don’t ask about the Fonz …
When your interview subject has written over 30 (and counting) children’s books; graduated from Yale School of Drama and received the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II for his work with children with learning challenges; and appeared in the original Broadway cast of a Neil Simon play and on the cult TV classic “Arrested Development,” well, you figure Henry Winkler is probably well over talking about his iconic role on “Happy Days.”
You figured wrong.
“I loved the Fonz,” Winkler, 71, said during a recent phone interview about his upcoming appearance at the AJC Decatur Book Festival. He figures his years playing the motorcycle-riding, smooth-as-his-Brylcreemed-hairdo Arthur Fonzarelli helped him get a foot in the door with publishers. “I don’t think I would have been able to sell the books without him.”
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What a Hank Zipzer-worthy muck-up that would’ve been!
Zipzer is a second-grader with learning differences who gets into — and rather ingeniously out of — a variety of frustrating and funny situations in the “Here’s Hank” series of children’s books. Winkler, who co-authors the series with Lin Oliver, will serve as the festival’s “Kidnote” speaker on Friday evening and sign books in the main AJC booth on Saturday morning.
Count on hearing something about the 10th and latest “Hank” book, a last-picked-for-the-team-ish tale with the irresistible title “Hooray! My Butt Left the Bench.”
But also count on hearing Winkler talk about what he says makes Hank — and every kid — alike and and also uniquely important.
“All children have a challenge, whether it’s height, weight, athletics, problems with music or math — it doesn’t matter, they all seem to identify with Hank,” Winkler said passionately. “These books are about you have got greatness inside you and you don’t need to sit there and mope. You can celebrate yourself.”
Our pint-sized hero’s still in the early stages of figuring that out in the “Here’s Hank” books, where he knows he has trouble with spelling, math and reading — just not exactly why yet. The series, which is set to conclude with Book 12, is a prequel of sorts to an earlier Winkler-Oliver series simply titled “Hank Zipzer.” There, Hank’s a fourth-grader whose challenges finally get a diagnosis in Book 2 (of 17): dyslexia.
Related video: The AJC’s Rodney Ho interviews Henry Winkler
“Mr. Rock comes to the house and says (to Hank’s parents), ‘You might want to think about this,’” Winkler said about a character who shares a name and similarly important role as someone in his own life. “Mr. Rock was my music teacher in 11th grade. He told me, ‘If you ever get out of here, you’re going to be great.’ I held onto that.”
With good reason: Winkler says he never thought he’d write a book, let alone choose to read them. That started to change when he was 31 and his young stepson’s diagnosis with dyslexia helped explain his own lifelong struggles with academics.
“Everything they said about him was true for me,” said Winkler, who wasn’t formally diagnosed himself. “I’d thought, and sometimes still think that I’m stupid, because that’s what I was imprinted with by my teachers and parents.”
The father of three never read books to his kids when they were little. Instead, Stacey, his wife of 39 years, would read aloud and “my job was to act them out,” Winkler recalled.
It’s the sort of determined workaround that readers of the “Here’s Hank” books are familiar with: Book 9 finds Hank trying to wait tables at his family’s deli in spite of his spelling issues and it ending in disaster (unless you think blueberries on a cheeseburger sounds delish); but after applying himself, he turns out to be great at the hands-on task of making triple-decker sandwiches. In the new book, he gets mixed up trying to dial the phone number of the best player on the second-grade basketball team; yet later on, he turns himself into the squad’s unlikely secret weapon as a ball passer.
“Hank through all the books is completely resourceful,” Winkler said with a chuckle. “He says his imagination has personality, which I love.”
Something else to love: The books all use Dyslexie, a font developed specifically for dyslexic readers. It makes the letters more distinct from each other and less likely to become jumbled or flipped around in those readers’ minds (it works great for people without dyslexia, too).
Equally important, the books are fun to read. Packed with humorous incidents and memorable characters like Ms. Adolf (“the meanest teacher on the whole planet”), they’re clearly written for their intended audience.
“If you don’t talk down to children, and you make them laugh and the emotion is real,” Winkler said, “they’ll say, ‘How did you know me so well?’”