August 7, 2003
Making Dyslexia Funny
T he Fonz was the ultimate of cool on "Happy Days," but in real life Henry Winkler struggled through school. Winkler and his parents -- who called him stupid and lazy -- didn't know that he was dyslexic until he was diagnosed at age 30.
Winkler, 57, is now taking those frustrating childhood experiences and giving them a humorous twist in his new Hank Zipzer book series, which he hopes will raise the self-esteem of kids diagnosed with the misunderstood disorder.
Aimed at third- to sixth-grade readers, Hank Zipzer's misadventures are part of a growing movement to reshape how people view dyslexia. Nonfiction works like Sally Shaywitz's "Overcoming Dyslexia" and Time's July 28 cover story tout groundbreaking research that shows the reading disability can be overcome.
"[My parents] were sure that if I stayed and concentrated long enough, I was going to win," Winkler said.
In the first two books, "Niagra Falls, or Does It?" and "I Got a 'D' in Salami," Zipzer knows something's wrong, but doesn't know he's dyslexic. In the third book, "The Day of the Iguana" (due out Sept. 15), the world's best underachiever is finally diagnosed.
Is Zipzer Jewish?
Winkler said that the character's mother runs a New York deli that her father started, but he hasn't given his main character a religion yet.
Winkler's own Conservative parents expected him to become a bar mitzvah. However, his learning disability made it difficult for him to read English, let alone Hebrew.
"I had to learn my Torah portion phonetically," said Winkler, who also took to memorizing the prayers.
While the disorder makes it challenging for Winkler to read, he said he wouldn't change his dyslexic past.
"It makes you a fighter," he said. "I don't know that I would have gotten to where I am today [without it]."
Henry Winkler will read and sign his "Hank Zipzer" books at Barnes & Noble at The Grove on Aug. 9, 2 p.m.