Henry Winkler Talks To Parentdish

Henry Winkler is familiar to most grown-ups as cool cat The Fonz in 1970s TV hit Happy Days. But younger audiences are more likely to know Winkler as the author behind the bestselling Hank Zipzer books.

The side-splitting series, which Winkler writes in collaboration with Lin Oliver, follows sparky youngster Hank as he copes with being dyslexic on top of the everyday trials of being an average kid. Hank's adventures have now been made into a TV series, currently showing on CBBC.

Parentdish spoke to Winkler about his childhood struggles with dyslexia, what can be done to support children with reading difficulties, and bringing his creation from the page to the small screen.

Parents of children with reading difficulties often worry about the balance between helping them progress and putting pressure on them. From your experience, what would be the best way for a parent to help and support a dyslexic child?

First and foremost... no pressure! Pressure does not change the wiring of the brain. A child wants to read and is probably not pretending they can't. Suggesting that your child read anything - that is suitable, of course - might open a path to enthusiasm. When writing the Hank Zipzer series, we thought the best road to a child's heart was with humour.

Also - and just a thought - shorten the time that you as the parent think is appropriate for reading. If you said a half an hour a day, cut it down to only 15 minutes. Once the child is engaged and enjoying reading, they will make it a half an hour or longer all on their own.

You've previously talked about your struggles with reading. How did you get from that struggle to writing books yourself?

When I was approached for the first time to write a book, I rejected the notion outright. The second time I was asked, I was smart enough to say, "I'll just try, and see what happens."

Can you tell us a bit about Hank Zipzer? It's inspired by your own childhood experiences and you gave Hank some of the same back story as yourself – how much do you have in common with Hank?

The emotional Hank is truly me. The emotional Hank came flying out of me as if I were nine yesterday. The funny Hank is our creation and totally exaggerated. I covered my shame and humiliation for doing so badly in school with humour, in my real life. So does Hank.

Hank gets into some pretty wacky situations in the book and TV series – did any of those crazy stories come directly from your life, or is it all imagination?

Some of the situations in Hank Zipzer I have lived or heard about, or my children, who are also learning challenged, experienced. And some of the situations, my writing partner, Lin Oliver, and I just make up. Ms Adolf, as written, was my actual teacher.

You've previously mentioned that dyslexic children got no support when you were growing up. What do you wish someone had said to you as a child to help? What would you say to young people who are frustrated about their difficulties with reading?

No matter how difficult learning is for you, school DOES NOT define you. Whatever your greatness is, whether it be running, being a good friend, football, or chemistry, it is an important gift needed by the world.

In the books, the words are 'weighted' to prevent dyslexic readers from 'flipping' letters. Are there any techniques you've learnt over the years which make reading easier for you?

In our newest novels, Here's Hank, the publisher has used a new font developed by a dad in Holland for his learning challenged children.

The opening of letters like C, the distancing between letters and words, the weight of the letters in the printing, the length of a lower case g or q is longer... all of these details help the words stay in place while the book is being read. Lots of adults have mentioned it makes scanning the sentences a lot easier for them too.

Some experts have claimed that 'dyslexia' is vague and meaningless diagnosis. Do you think it's a useful term, or would you choose to define the range of reading difficulties differently?

The word dyslexia is now pretty universally understood as a learning challenge. It's working pretty well. Perhaps for the medical field or student teachers, subsections, subcategories, or subtitles would be helpful.

For me, when somebody says dyslexia, I know what that means. And I also know that every child has his or her own severity.

How did the Hank Zipzer books become the new TV series? Was a live-action adaptation something you already had in mind?

Five women in England, Nicky Cox from First News, Helen McAleer from Walker Productions, Anne Brogan from Kindle Entertainment, and Sue Nott and Cheryl Taylor from CBBC all said the same sentence to me: "Leave it with me."

And lo and behold, Hank Zipzer is now a hit television show. If you want something done, find an English woman to help you!

Hank Zipzer is currently showing on CBBC, and you can catch up on the first episodes on BBC iPlayer.