Henry Winkler, best known as the actor who played Fonzie on the sitcom “Happy Days,” has spent much of the past decade raising awareness for dyslexia, a learning disability he struggled with through his own childhood.
On March 15, Winkler and co-writer Lin Oliver, a successful writer and film producer in her own right, will appear at the Newtown Theatre to talk about their new children’s book, Here’s Hank: You Can’t Drink a Meatball Through a Straw.
It’s the latest book in the Here’s Hank and Hank Zipzer series, which details the exploits of Hank, a young boy with dyslexia. Hank reflects qualities Winkler experienced himself. He struggles with words, but he’s resourceful. He gets down on himself, but he’s resilient. He’ll make you laugh, but his emotional side is palpable.
“The emotion is absolutely real,” Winkler said during a phone interview. “I’m able to go back and remember what it was like being 8, 9, 10 years old, and memorizing words and then going to class and completely forgetting.”
He was able to channel these memories in his first meeting with Oliver. The two linked up through a mutual friend, Winkler’s agent at the time. Oliver was impressed by Winkler’s candidness with his story, and was able to relate them to her children.
“I saw the varying degrees of struggle they had in school. Having trouble sitting still, paying attention, doing their homework each night,” she said. “If you learn to feel bad about yourself in school, it makes it hard in life.”
“Henry was right there with it,” she continued. “He felt it deeply and he put it out deeply. That was very sweet and touching to me. We connected on a very human level.’
This connection spurred a prolific output of children’s books. Last week they were at Oliver’s office working on the series’ 32nd book.
“I told her about my growing up and what it was like to be dyslexic,” Winkler said. “At the lunch table right then and there, we hatched Hank.”
It was a departure for Winkler, who built his career as an actor. His expressive, sometimes sarcastic, often humorous acting landed him in over 100 roles, along with success as a producer, director and comedian. Creating Hank, he said, is not as far off as one might imagine from his acting career.
“In ‘The Waterboy,’ ‘Arrested Development’ and ‘Happy Days,’ I had three brilliant creators,” Winkler said. “You start with who you are and you add on conditions given to you from the writers. It’s my job to create a human being that you believe in and makes you laugh.”
The idea behind the books is to make people laugh first, Oliver said. The duo didn’t write down to kids, instead they sought to find common ground with emotion and humor.
“If you patronize, if you think you’re going to get something by them, you’re finished,” Winkler said. “In that, we found the reluctant reader.”
Winkler knows this because he was a reluctant reader himself. He said he didn’t read a book until he was 31.
It’s personal, too. His own children are dyslexic. These books relate not only to children with learning disabilities, but also parents looking to understand their kids’ perspectives.
“I know as a grandfather that kids come out who they are. They’re born on earth with destiny inside of them. Our job is to take whoever that child is in front of you, see them and not make them who you want them to be. You have to help them reach their destiny.”
Winkler preaches support and admiring the effort, not the grades.
“They’re aware they’re not keeping up. They’re having a tough time,” he said. “You don’t need to lay it on them and say, ‘Wow, you’re stupid.'”
In his view, that only reinforces the negative self-image they might feel.
That’s part of the reason he and Oliver are hitting the road for a six-date book tour through the U.S. They want to share what they wrote, but mostly, what they learned in writing.
“First of all, we’ll make them laugh. Second of all, we’re adorable people. Third of all, these books actually start children on their journey,” Winkler joked. “These people come and they enjoy what we enjoy.They enjoy what we did together. That is something you cannot put into words.”
Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver will appear at the Newtown Theatre, 120 N. State St. in Newtown, on March 15 at 7 p.m. For information, visit www.newtownbookshop.com.