How The Fonz Is Helping Readers With Learning Differences
In 1977, actor Henry Winkler gave libraries and literacy a gigantic stage when TV’s #1 character, The Fonz, on the nation’s #2 show, Happy Days, got a library card and extolled the virtues of reading. And, nearly 40 years later, Winkler is still making an impact on young readers in an entirely different, and personal, way.
Winkler and co-author Lin Oliver recently published their 25th children’s book, Here’s Hank: You Can’t Drink a Meatball Through a Straw. It’s the seventh book in the duo’s Here’s Hank series, which centers on second grader Hank Zipzer. Aimed at readers in kindergarten through second grade, Here’s Hank is a prequel series to the pair’s earlier 18-book series, Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever, which follows the exploits of fourth-grader Hank, who is dyslexic.
“[In Here’s Hank, he is] a kid who’s on his way to being diagnosed with a learning challenge and hasn’t been diagnosed yet,” Oliver says. “A kid who’s flopping around in the school system and trying to do his best, but not having it quite gel. Spelling is hard, reading is hard, math is hard, and he doesn’t know why yet.”
Both versions of Hank are based on the experience of Winkler, who struggled his entire life with what was eventually diagnosed as dyslexia in his 30s, a time when he was already internationally famous and beloved as The Fonz.
“His son was tested, they’re describing his son’s learning differences, and Henry said it was like a lightning bolt went off,” Oliver shares. “He thought, Wait a minute, that’s me. You think, here at midlife, I’m not stupid, I have a learning difference. What those kids grow up believing is they’re less-than; that they’re not good at school, that they’re not that smart. And, of course, that’s not the case at all. Most kids with learning challenges are really smart.”
Over a decade ago, Winkler and Oliver, a prolific author and television writer, were invited to lunch by their mutual agent. Winkler had a story to tell and needed someone to help him tell it.
“Henry told me his story and I thought, This is every family’s story. Here he is, one of the most iconic figures in America, and he suffered so growing up because he was bad at school,” Oliver said. “It was so touching to me that someone could go through their whole childhood feeling failed because they didn’t do well in school and not understand they had other kinds of intelligences. I responded both as an author, thinking this is a great story to tell, and as a mother, understanding that so many kids operate on a frustration level at school, that school frustrates them rather than stimulates them.”
The duo wrote the first Hank Zipzer book in 2004, Niagara Falls, Or Does It?, and went on to publish 17 more in the series geared toward readers in Grade 3 and up. Together, the series sold more than 5 million copies.
“They tell the story of Hank Zipzer, a kid living in New York, who’s smart, funny, resourceful, creative, and bad at school,” she says. “We devised this fictional character who embodied all of these traits. Somebody who had dyslexia, who clearly has executive function disorders — can’t remember things, loses his jacket — and created an environment for him where most of these issues live, people telling them to do things they can’t really do. That was really based on Henry’s story.”
The key to the books’ success, Oliver says, is “they’re not only authentic, but they’re funny. So many parents write to us and say, ‘This is the first book my child ever read,’ or ‘I walked by my child’s room and she was reading and laughing.’ And we think, There you go. This is how you bring children to reading, to let them see themselves on the pages of the book.”
Based on the success of the original series, in 2014 Winkler and Oliver began writing the Here’s Hank books geared toward K-2 readers — same kid, same challenges, just two years younger.
The Here’s Hank books are carefully designed for young readers, especially those who may have difficulty reading or a dyslexia diagnosis. The books are printed in the Dyslexie font (dyslexiefont.com), developed in 2008 by a Dutch graphic designer as a way to make reading easier for those with dyslexia (see above).
“That’s an amazing thing, we’re so grateful to our publishers,” Oliver says of the font usage. “It’s easier for everyone to read.”
The use of Dyslexie means more white space on the page and more space between words and individual letters, making it harder for dyslexic readers to flip letters or words while reading. The strokes that sit above or below a line, such as a lowercase d or g, are weighted heavier toward the bottom, keeping them from “floating” around a page, another common effect of the processing challenge.
The book also offers some short, two-page, list-based chapters, Oliver says.
“As a child, I would go to the library and I would pick books that had a lot of dialogue because I liked the whiteness on the page. The page looked like I could attack as opposed to a page with all dense gray type,” she says. “We try and be aware of those kinds of things: add a lot of dialogue, make our paragraphs short, make our chapters end on a suspenseful note, vary length of chapters so the pace doesn’t feel overwhelming. The hope is this is the book you keep in your back pocket for when your teacher says you can read something for fun.”
While the books are geared toward children who have learning differences, Oliver emphasizes both series are not just for those with dyslexia.
“One in 5 children has a learning challenge, so if it’s not yours, it’s the kid sitting next to them, or the kid sitting next to them,” she says. “It helps empathy and awareness for kids who don’t have a learning issue. We hope they’re read by everyone as entertainment and also as door openers to the fact that there are a lot of people who learn differently, to promote the idea that different isn’t bad and different isn’t less than.”
Oliver is emphatic: Learning challenges like dyslexia are “not a deficiency, it’s just a difference. It doesn’t have to impede their life or achieving their life dreams in any way.”
And she says the Winkler-Oliver partnership is “an example of one of the things the books espouse: There’s a way to accomplish anything you want to accomplish, you just have to find your own unique path. Henry couldn’t have written these on his own, and I couldn’t have written them without him because it’s not my story. The combination of the two of us has become very powerful. It’s given him a path to tell his story and me a path to understand.”
The duo return to their television roots when writing, sitting in a room together just like TV writers developing a script.
“Because we both came out of television, we’re both very used to having a creative process that happens in collaboration. I’m at the computer, he’s walking around the room, and we write out loud. We develop a scene together using a lot of techniques from television: you talk it out, one person offers up a line. We write a draft and rewrite. And we laugh. The rule is: If it doesn’t make us laugh, it doesn’t go in.”
And while show business is known as cutthroat and superficial, Oliver confirms a rumor about her writing partner: He’s just as nice as you’d hope he’d be.
“He’s a deeply beautiful human being,” she notes. “He built his acting reputation on being too cool for school and he’s the opposite. Sweet, kind, compassionate, caring — completely committed to the idea that the best way to be cool is to be entirely who you are.”