Henry Winkler: The Fonz writes books!

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
May 11, 2008

Three decades ago, Henry Winkler was best known for his role as the Fonz on “Happy Days.” These days, the actor has a whole new generation of fans, thanks to his Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever series of children’s books. Hank, an irrepressible fourth-grader, deals with dyslexia, bullies and a potential love interest in the latest installment — The Life of Me: Enter at Your Own Risk ($5.99, Gosset & Dunlap) — which just hit book stores.

And if the name Hank Zipzer sounds an awful lot like Henry Winkler, there’s a reason for that. Hank is basically Henry at the age of 9, and, like his alter ego, Winkler suffers from dyslexia.

“It was so difficult for me to read a book when I was a kid and I didn’t understand why,” says Winkler, 62. “For me to actually write a book, it’s astounding to me. I’m incredibly grateful to be able to do it.”

Winkler, who also co-stars in the family film “A Plumm Summer,” called from his Los Angeles home to talk about his love of books, photography and getting to know some of his youngest fans.

Q. You’ve done so many different things in your career, but you’ve always said that writing the Hank Zipzer books has made you the most proud. Why is that?
A. Because being able to help get kids interested in reading is just such a pleasure. I’m dyslexic and always thought I was stupid. Nobody understood dyslexia way back when I was a kid. These books are basically my life at that age. Hank is me in the fourth grade. Children respond to him in a way they can’t respond to an old man like me! They seem to like his “glass half full” outlook and the way he uses humor to overcome his struggles. Kids will sometimes ask me, “How did you know me so well?” The books aren’t just for children struggling with dyslexia. It’s for all children, but yes, it’s also to let kids know that there is no shame in having a learning disability, no matter what that challenge may be.

Q. What have some of your readers said to you about Hank and the books?
A. A little boy in Missouri said he laughed so hard his funny bone fell out. Another little girl said that she was not bored for one second. Honestly, it was more heartwarming for me to hear those comments than to get good reviews for any projects I did actingwise.

Q. When did your interest in reading escalate?
A. I didn’t really enjoy reading books until I was in my 40s. It’s not that I didn’t want to, but I was just so intimidated by them. Now I can’t get enough of them. I’ll read a book cover to cover in a day or so. I love a good thriller.

Q. How did the Zipzer books come about?
A. Someone suggested I write a children’s book about dyslexia and I said, “No, I’m stupid. I can’t do it and even if I could it wouldn’t be any good.” Then a few years later, that same suggestion came up. This time I was ready to give it a try.

Q. You’re also an avid photographer. When did your interest in photography begin?
A. About 1993. That’s when I went to a gallery in Jackson Hole, Mont., and I bought a photograph. I loved that photo and then I asked myself, “Do you, Henry, think you can take a picture like this that would please you enough to hang it up in your house?” It was a fun challenge. I won’t say that I’m accomplished by any means, but I have a great time taking photos wherever I go. Then a few years later, I was asked [by TakeGreatPictures.com] to upload some of my photos. That was flattering, but also a little intimidating to have my work out there for everyone to see and judge. I’ll admit that when people tell me they like my photography, I’ll always say, “No kidding?” I’m not as confident about my photography as I am about my writing or acting or directing at this point. Hopefully one day that may change. [Winkler’s travel photos may be perused at www.takegreatpictures.com/henry_winkler_2.fci.]

Q. So when will we see a book of photographs from you?
A. [Laughs] I don’t know if that will ever happen, but that would certainly be an interesting new challenge to set for myself. Maybe I’ll be ready to do that when Hank is.

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