Transcript of our interview with Henry Winkler

Photo of Henry Winkler from the American Library AssociationWhat follows is the transcript of our audio interview with Henry Winkler, featured on episode 300 of the Just One More Book!! children’s book podcast.

Henry Winkler: Hi, this is Henry Winkler and I’m one of the co-authors of Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever. And I have just been fortunate enough to be on Just One More Book.

Mark Blevis: According to the website ReadingSuccessLab.com, government statistics show 25 million Americans are functionally illiterate. The primary cause is dyslexia or one of its many variants.

Through their children’s book series, “Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever”, co-authors Lin Oliver and Henry Winkler share the struggles and triumphs of a resourceful elementary school student as he deals with the challenges that come with dyslexia. The stories are based on Henry Winkler’s own experiences with the disorder.

On this edition of Just One More Book, I speak with actor, director, producer and author, Henry Winkler, about becoming an author and his relationship with Hank Zipzer, his struggles with reading and learning, and what we can do to help our children.

This is Episode 300 of Just One More Book.

Mark Blevis: Your career has been rooted in television and stage work as an actor, director and producer. What was it that inspired you to create Hank Zipzer as a character in a children’s book?

Henry Winkler: Well it’s interesting because an agent of mine, when there was a lull in my working at the moment, said to me, I think in 1998, “Why don’t you write books for kids about your dyslexia?” and I said “because I’m stupid and I’m lazy and I’m not living up to my potential” which is what I was told my whole life. I said “no”. And I said, and not only that, but also there really is no discussion, I’ve got nothing to say, I don’t know what to do. And so I’m not doing it. And he then asked me again, same question, in 2003. And this time I said okay. I don’t know why I said okay, I just said okay. And then he introduced me to Lin Oliver. And there we go. We had the greatest time.

Mark Blevis: That’s really interesting because most celebrities that turn to writing books do so on their own. How did you decide to collaborate with Lin? Was it through your agent?

Henry Winkler: Well, the collaboration was through this man. He introduced me to Lin. Lin not only is, you know, a gift from God, I have to say, as a person, as a phenomenal partner. But she is also one of the co-founders of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. And they have 22,000 nation-wide members and, as a matter of fact, internationally.

Mark Blevis: How does it feel to be among that company?

Henry Winkler: Oh it’s great. It’s great because I walk around her office, she sits at her computer and we fight over every single word and we just finished the 14th novel.

Mark Blevis: And that comes out in April, of course.

Henry Winkler: Yes.

Mark Blevis: Mr. Rock figures more prominently in this book as well.

Henry Winkler: Right. Mr. Rock was my actual music teacher in high school. I went to McBurney School for Boys in New York City. And he was the guy who said, “I believe in you.” Everybody else said to me, “You’re never gonna graduate.”

Mark Blevis: What does that do to an individual?

Henry Winkler: Well, that’s one of the things that I talk about when I travel around the country and I speak to groups or I speak to children. The self-image when the kids are young, when they are in the, you know, from zero to eighteen and the self-image is building. First of all, if you are dyslexic or if you have a learning challenge, kids know. They know that it’s hard for them. They know that they’re not up to snuff. They know that they’re not doing as well as 75% of the class. So then to compound it by labeling them, by putting them down, by yelling at them, by grounding them because, you know, they’re not reading fast enough, it warps their ability to grow into a healthy self-image.

Mark Blevis: Well this is one of the things that really fascinates me about your choice of doing a children’s book, because a lot of children with learning disabilities have–they struggle with reading and with keeping their attention through a book. Was there a particular motivation with going that route?

Henry Winkler: Well, I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what is amazing. I was, you know, I was just in England and I just did a play there. I came home 2 days ago, as a matter of fact. And I read my books at two different schools. The books are not published in the U.K. But I read my books in two schools. And there was a young boy, African-English, kid who did not read and would not write creatively. And he read Hank and he has devoured now almost the whole series. His teacher got them from Amazon. And he has started to write creatively because he completely identified with Hank. Now if that’s not one of the greatest compliments in the universe, I don’t know what is. I mean, that could literally move me to tears, this kid. And I met him.

Mark Blevis: How does that affect you in your approach to writing and approach to reading these books to kids?

Henry Winkler: It doesn’t. The approach to writing is, we write about this kid, Hank Zipzer and he’s funny first. He makes you laugh. I got a letter from a little boy in Missouri who said “I laughed so hard my funny bone fell out of my body.” So I write what I know. It’s the same way, my same approach to acting. You know, when we were doing The Fonz and The Fonz was very popular, everybody said, “Well do you feel like a responsibility?” And I said, “No, I don’t, I’m just doing what I know how to do. I just do it the way I do it and it connects or it doesn’t” because, you know what, if you try to write for a particular person, or if you try to be somebody you think they want you to be, it’s never going to be compelling.

Mark Blevis: Is that what makes the relationship between you and Lin Oliver work so well is that you get to be — well I’m thinking especially of Book One in Hank Zipzer, when he has the assignment to do and he decides instead to do a presentation with an elaborate diorama, a functioning diorama.

Henry Winkler: I did that! I did that when I was younger, I did.

Mark Blevis: Was that the response that it got from the teacher?

Henry Winkler: Well I had Ms. Adolph. Ms. Adolph was my real teacher. She was the worst teacher in the universe. I mean, you know, so I didn’t know what else to do because reading is still difficult for me. I read spy novels, thrillers, you know, Daniel Silva or Lee Child, who was amazing. But that somehow my brain, you know, just works through them and they just completely entertain me and I love it. I’m so grateful. Every book I read I have on my shelf and it has to be hard cover. And they’re like each one is a triumph for me. And that’s what I tell the kids that I talk to. I tell them, “Listen, I am an actor, I’m a director, I’m a producer, I’m a husband, I’m a dad. We have 3 children, we have 2 dogs. I write children’s novels and I’m in the bottom 3% in America academically. So if I can do it, you can do it.”

Mark Blevis: Did you read to your children when they were young?

Henry Winkler: Oh my wife read to them because reading is so difficult. And I would act out the story as she was reading it so they heard the story and they laughed when I would just act it out. And it was great. And what was so interesting is that I literally could not read to them. My eyes would get tired; I would fall asleep before they did, you know. It was horrible.

Mark Blevis: Was this before your diagnosis?

Henry Winkler: No, this was–my diagnosis came when my stepson, who is now 36, was in the third grade. And everything that they said to him, I went, “Oh my goodness. That sounds like me.” That’s what–that was my diagnosis.

Mark Blevis: What was that moment of discovery like for you?

Henry Winkler: Well the first thing I did was I got really angry. And I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, all that yelling. All of that being grounded was all for nothing.”

Mark Blevis: What strategies did you create for yourself as a child to overcome your learning challenges?

Henry Winkler: Well mostly dinner. Mostly I had no strategy. I just–humor and food. I enjoyed a great pizza, and that made me feel, you know, good. But most of the time, I didn’t have a strategy. Only now is there even, you know, talks about strategy. When I was growing up, there was no strategy, there was just grounding. My parents grounded me. I never saw the moon during my junior year of high school. They were just convinced if I stayed in my room, if I stayed at my desk, I was going to get it.

Mark Blevis: Your message to parents is, “Give children a sense of self and do not define yourself by the way your child succeeds or doesn’t.”

Henry Winkler: That’s right and also the child should never, ever think that because we learn differently, because we learn slower or it’s harder or we can’t get it at all, like I never beat the system when it came to spelling. I can’t spell to save my life. That doesn’t define your intelligence. How we learn does not define how unbelievably brilliant you are as a human being on this earth.

Mark Blevis: So how do you as a parent and a human, as opposed to a professional, how has that helped you develop these messages and deliver them in a way that people–

Henry Winkler: Well, you know that’s an interesting question because when my kids were younger and I hadn’t figured a lot of this out yet, I said to them exactly, you know, what was said to me. So I was repeating the pattern. And like my–finally my youngest son, Max, he would listen to the radio when he was doing his homework and he would stand at his desk, he couldn’t sit down, you know, or he would lie on his bed. And I would say to him, “But you’ve got to sit at your desk and you’ve gotta have good light and you can’t listen to the radio.” And finally I saw the grades were coming home. And maybe the radio, maybe the music, was being used as a tool, that it was blocking the rest of the world out so he could concentrate on what he was doing. So I finally learned to just shut up. And then he went to USC and he writes scripts now and he directs. And he is fantastic. My daughter is a teacher. My oldest son is just starting a new business. All three of them are dyslexic.

Mark Blevis: I’m going to take a guess here and assume that a lot of people who have learning disabilities like dyslexia are not going to be forthcoming about it. Maybe they’re a little bit shy about it or embarrassed about it.

Henry Winkler: Yeah I see.

Mark Blevis: And Hank Zipzer–

Henry Winkler: It’s embarrassing, I guess, for them, huh?

Mark Blevis: Exactly. Hank Zipzer wears it well. He wears it with confidence. It’s just–it’s part of who he is.

Henry Winkler: Yeah, his glass is completely half full.

Mark Blevis: Is that the Henry Winkler since the diagnosis? Is that where that motivation comes from?

Henry Winkler: Yeah I think so.

Mark Blevis: After you were diagnosed with dyslexia, did you learn any strategies or develop any strategies for dealing with it?

Henry Winkler: I didn’t do anything. I didn’t go looking for anything. What I did was over the years I–you know what, I’m proud of this. I taught myself to speed read. You know, when you–when I listened to the radio there were always the commercials for Helen Wood or Evelyn Wood speed reading course, you know. Learn to read like–President Kennedy could read like seven newspapers in an hour because he was able to speed read. And I taught myself how to do that. And I thought that was amazing.

Mark Blevis: How has Stacey, your wife, being a child welfare advocate, influenced you as an author and spokesperson for dyslexia?

Henry Winkler: Oh, I don’t have an answer to that question. I mean I’m proud of her, we did it together. I’ve worked with kids when I was in high school. You know, I was a counselor in an after school center. So I’ve been doing–I’ve been working with children my whole life. And we went together to a facility here one Christmas party when I first met her in 1978. And she said we can’t do this once a year and she exploded into a child advocate. I mean, she and a friend helped create the Department of Children’s Services in L.A. It did not exist before Stacey Winkler.

Mark Blevis: Do you think that there’s enough resources available for children now to help them?

Henry Winkler: No, listen–you know, the children don’t vote. So we talk a lot about kids, but we don’t do a lot about kids. When a child becomes really, really important when they are of voting age. That’s the long and the short of it. Because we talk about how, you know, the child is like the future and all that. And it all sounds great. And then we cut the lunch program or the breakfast program which is sometimes the only meal a child has during the day. And trust me; you cannot learn when you’re only thinking about mashed potatoes and meatloaf.

Mark Blevis: Book 14 comes out in April. “Hank Zipzer: Enter at Your Own Risk.”

Henry Winkler: Now that is a super-sized book.

Mark Blevis: Super-sized?

Henry Winkler: Yeah, I didn’t even know there was such a thing. It is double the size. And what I love about it is that it is a scrapbook also. And it literally is his life. You know, Lin and I wrote his first lists, you know, when he was in kindergarten, his first play, his first poem. And then we also added my report cards, my personal report cards, pictures of our dogs, so that the reader could also see Hank Zipzer’s good friends who write him.

Mark Blevis: He has really good friends.

Henry Winkler: He does. I love his friends. They take such good care of him – Frankie, who’s African-American and Ashley, an American-Asian.

Mark Blevis: And they understand him.

Henry Winkler: They understand him, they don’t judge him. They try to take care of him; they try to talk him out of his misadventures. Then when he gets deep in his adventures, they figure out how to get him out of them. He’s got great friends.

Mark Blevis: Are those the friends that you had growing up?

Henry Winkler: No. Those are the friends that I wish I had.

Mark Blevis: Installment 14, episode 14, is that just the beginning of Hank Zipzer or is there an end in sight? What can we expect?

Henry Winkler: Well, we have–you know, when I first met Lin and we went to lunch and we came up with Hank. And then Eston Newburg, who is my agent at ICM, sold, you know, sent it to all these children’s publishers. And a lot of people said no. People didn’t, you know, they don’t take celebrity authors seriously. They think that, you know, that they’re not going to follow through, you know, that they’re just doing it as a lark. And Debra Dorfman at Penguin Putnam … said to me “yes” and gave us a contract for 4. And now we have a contract for 16.

Mark Blevis: An additional 16, or 16 being–

Henry Winkler
: No, 16 in total. But they have already asked us to go further. I think that we have actually sold over 2 million books, which I think, in terms of children’s books, is amazing.

Mark Blevis: Do you and Lin think that she’ll continue the series?

Henry Winkler: Yeah. We have fun doing it, you know. And as long as we come up with stories, sure.

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