In 2002, Henry Winkler’s then-agent suggested he write children’s books about dyslexia. The actor, who first entered the national psyche playing the Fonz in “Happy Days,” wasn’t sure he could do it – not with his own learning challenge. Yet, on meeting longtime children’s author and TV producer Lin Oliver, he was convinced.
Today, these two, who appear Thursday at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, are excitedly closing in on their 30th co-written book. “Now we’re hooked together for life,” Oliver says.
She and Winkler have developed a collaborative creative process that ensures equal input from both the career children’s author and the actor with dyslexia; in fact, their approach has a lot in common with a TV comedy brainstorming session.
“We sit opposite each other in armchairs and beat out a story, and then we go from there,” Winkler says on a conference call with Oliver. Then, he says, Oliver sits at the computer to type it out. “She reads it back to me, and then we argue over every word,” he says with a laugh.
Oliver says this is a natural rhythm, made possible by a common history in show business.
Their central character, Hank Zipzer, is a grade-school goofball whose glass is “half-full, he just spills it everywhere,” says Winkler.
A British television show based on the books debuted last month on Children’s BBC, with Winkler playing a supportive teacher.
While most of the books take place in the fourth grade and after, Winkler and Oliver have rewound a few years to write prequels occurring before the character is diagnosed with dyslexia.
“Like a lot of little kids, he’s making accommodations for something he really doesn’t understand yet,” says Oliver.
“And, like me, he covers everything with humor,” Winkler adds.
The books themselves are written to be funny, rather than sappy or pitying, with Hank’s dyslexia just one aspect of his character rather than a defining or limiting factor.
When his learning challenge does present itself, though, it’s an apparent window into Winkler’s own experiences; in “Bookmarks are People Too,” Hank gets in front of his class to audition for a part in a play. The script is just a jumble of letters, though, and his ensuing cold panic is painfully believable. (“Bookmarks” is the first Zipzer book to use the Dyslexie font; the letters are heavier at the bottom and have longer ascending and descending strokes, making it harder for dyslexic readers to flip them.)
The characters, too, originated in Oliver and Winkler’s lives: Hank’s dad, who doesn’t seem to understand his son’s learning challenge, is based on Winkler’s dad. And the Papa Pete character is based on someone Oliver knows, but also on a hole in Winkler’s childhood.
“I never had a grandparent because they were all taken to concentration camps in Germany,” Winkler says, all the humor vanishing from his voice. “So it’s a combination of Lin knowing somebody and my wanting a grandfather to be right there for me.”
Winkler is following the advice he gives young authors: write what you know. And he’s careful not to write down to children; kids can spot condescension, he points out.
“The most important thing that we have found is to make sure that a child’s self-image is intact, because a child knows they are not doing well,” he says. “They don’t need to be reminded that they’re not good in math – they are very well aware and it doesn’t feel good.”
Instead, Winkler’s books present a character kids can identify with – one who falls behind academically, but is able to get by on ingenuity, humor and optimism.
“(Hank) is full of confidence and joy, and craving experience,” Oliver says. “He wants to do the right thing, he wants to help out, and then he trips over his own feet.”