To one generation, the name Henry Winkler is a reminder of the 1970s hit sitcom “Happy Days,” where he portrayed the fast-talking Fonz. To a much younger generation, he is the author of a series of early-reader chapter books starring a goofy yet lovable boy named Hank Zipzer. Along with writing partner and co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Lin Oliver, Winkler has written dozens of stories in the Here’s Hank series. The critically acclaimed books appear regularly on bestseller lists and even inspired a television series on the BBC. Children gravitate to Winkler’s Hank, an endearing boy with learning difficulties but whose determination and spirit provide inspiration and courage to face any obstacle.
Winkler was diagnosed with dyslexia at age thirty and understands firsthand the difficulties children face with learning. The Here’s Hank series grew out of Winkler’s desire to encourage kids to embrace their differences and realize that there’s more than one way to achieve success. On January 31st, Penguin released the latest Hank adventure: Always Watch Out For Flying Potato Salad. Winkler and Oliver kindly answered a few questions about the origins of the Here’s Hank series, best practices for building self-confidence, and the influence of good storytelling on reluctant readers.
The questions below were edited from an e-mail conversation on February 6, 2017.
- The Hank series deals with dyslexic child. Could you talk about what made you decide to become a children’s book author of a series with a dyslexic protagonist?
Winkler: The idea of writing a children’s book about my learning challenge was suggested to me by my agent. I was incredulous at the thought. It took a few months for my courage and the idea of my writing anything to merge in my brain, and very simply, I wrote what I knew. The emotion of Hank Zipzer is very true. The humor Lin and I create is exaggerated.
- You have been collaborating since the early 2000s. Could you talk about your work process? How do you come up with storylines?
Winkler: Lin and I meet every morning and we write in her office. One of us brings up a story idea and either spark to it right away or we throw the idea out. If the idea really hits us, we come up with a hundred possibilities in a matter of minutes, and then we know we’re on to something. I talk, Lin types. Lin has an idea, and she types, I wait, and then we argue over every word.
- How did you discover the Dyslexie font used in the Here’s Hank books? Have you, Henry, noticed a difference in your own comprehension when you read in this font?
The font was brought to us by our publisher who thought it would be an excellent addition to Here’s Hank, which is our younger series for second and third graders. [The Hank Zipzer series follows the protagonist through elementary school.] And yes, when I read the books out loud in classrooms and bookstores, I find the font helps my eyes and the words on the page become friends.
- In this installment, Hank goes with his mom to her deli for Take Your Child to Work Day and discovers what he’s good at and where he could use a little more practice (taking sandwich orders, for example.) It’s an important message—that it’s OK to make mistakes and we all have special gifts and talents. Where did the idea for this storyline come from?
Oliver: The story started with the sentence, ‘Take your child to Work day.’ The deli seemed to be the perfect cauldron of situations to highlight Hank’s challenges.
- I’ve read that many of the storylines in the books come from your own life experiences. True? Which Hank stories hit closer to home?
Winkler: Not being able to spell, to take orders, to play sports, to write a report, to use a dictionary, to figure out how a robot works, to reading cold from a page of a script, to organize, just to name a few.
- Were there any teachers who encouraged you not to give up?
Winkler: Actually, Mr. Rock, my music teacher in the 11th grade, who appears throughout the Hank Zipzer series. I am so proud that I got to play him in the BBC television series for the last four years.
- Were there any teachers who were insensitive? What was that like?
Winkler: When Hank Zipzer gets to the fourth grade, he has Ms. Adolf as his primary teacher. She is the worst teacher on the planet AND she was mine.
- Describe what it’s like actually writing a book as someone who never read as a child.
Winkler: Writing this series of 34 novels with Lin Oliver makes me so proud, so happy, so amazed, so triumphant, and so aware of my learning challenges that never disappear.
- Henry, you’ve said that you didn’t read when you were a child because of your undiagnosed dyslexia. What do you read now? Do you still find reading difficult?
- Do children and parents ever write to you with feedback on the books?
Winkler: Children have written to Lin and I all the time since 2003. The same two comments find themselves into so many of those letters: 1) How did you know me so well? 2) I laughed so hard my funny bone fell out of my body. Parents always write how much they appreciate that their children enjoy reading now because of Hank.
- Do you travel to schools and speak with kids about Hank?
Winker: Lin and I, together and separately, love speaking to students. I have spoken in schools all over our country and in Canada, England, and Italy.
- What are some best practices for children to build self-confidence in the face of dyslexia?
Winkler: A learning challenge can make a child’s self image plummet like a stone to the bottom of the ocean, so it is vital for every adult in a child’s life to help them hold on to the concept that no matter how difficult learning is, it has NOTHING to do with how BRILLIANT they are.
- What do you hope children take away from the Hank books?
Winkler: I hope kids read about Hank and realize that their cup is half full, too; that there is greatness in every reader and the child’s job is to figure out what that greatness is, and give it to the world as a gift.
- What is the key to good storytelling?
Oliver: I think good storytelling starts with a deeply felt truth, which is then dramatized and amplified by the story teller. In Hank’s case, we feel that this child has to deal with the frustration and low self-esteem that learning challenges can bring. That is the deeply felt truth. Then, we add drama and high stakes to that truth to make a story. In our most recent Always Watch Out for Flying Potato Salad, Hank wants more than anything to be successful during Take Your Child to Work Day; he wants his mother to be proud of him. When he can’t help but mess up, the story emerges that is full of both laughter and emotion.
- Do you have plans for subsequent books in the series?
Oliver: In the Here’s Hank books, we plan to follow Hank throughout his school year. We hope that this series of what will likely be twelve books will sustain our chapter books readers until they are ready to move on to the Hank Zipzer novels, which follow upon the chapter book series. We want Hank to become a friend and trusted companion to our readers throughout their grade school careers.