Henry Winkler encourages kids with dyslexia by creating a fictional hero Hank Zipzer, who shares their challenges and achievements.
You probably remember veteran actor Henry Winkler as the too cool for school Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli in the 1974-84 television comedy series Happy Days, co-starring well-known director Ron Howard. But in addition to a long and successful acting career, over the past dozen or so years Winkler has distinguished himself as a children’s author, for his series of books, co-authored with Lin Oliver, starring Hank Zipzer, a resourceful, wisecracking fourth-grader, who has dyslexia.
Having struggled – and suffered – throughout his school years with undiagnosed dyslexia, it’s still hard for Winkler to imagine his name even appearing in the same sentence with the words “author” or “book.” He felt anything but cool during his own childhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the 1950s and 60s.
“When I was growing up,” he recalls, “no one knew what learning challenges were. So, I was called ‘stupid,’ ‘lazy,’ and ‘not living up to my potential’”, explains Winkler.
As a result, Winkler often felt that the person he was inside was invisible to others. “Inside you feel one way, and people are telling you that you are another way,” he says, “and I couldn’t reconcile that.”
Unlike the young Winkler, Hank Zipzer has several adults in his life who believe he’ll succeed somehow, in spite of school. For example, in contrast to Winkler’s strict and demanding real-life parents, Hank Zipzer’s mom and dad, though often baffled by his behavior, do appreciate and try to connect with him.
The series of Hank books do more than touch on the challenges of dyslexia. To make the books even better for kids who have reading challenges, the pages include a lot of white space and are printed in a typeface called Dyslexie Font, created in 2008 by a Dutch man who has dyslexia.
Winkler often gets mail from young readers asking, “How do you know me so well,” and parents who are amazed that their children, who would never have attempted to read a book before, love reading about Hank Zipzer and anxiously await each new release.
“This is what I know,” explains Winkler. “A learning challenge doesn’t have to stop you. I write back to every child who writes me a letter about Hank Zipzer. In each letter I include, ‘your learning challenge will not stop you from meeting your dream. Only you will stop yourself from meeting your dream.’”
dyslexie typeface Dutch freelance graphic designer Christian Boer created a font especially designed for dyslexic people in 2008, as part of a final university project. Six years later, it’s available in over ten languages, and is being used by around 2,000 companies, including the likes of Nintendo, Shell, Pixar Animation Studios and the Penguin Group.
dig deeper Check out Henry Winkler’s series of books about Hank Zipzer filled with Hank’s lively adventures and misadventures, ideal for young readers ages 8 – 12. Each book in the series addresses Hanks struggles with school, without making his academic challenges the sum of who he is.