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An Interview with Henry Winkler

By: Henry Winkler

Q: You've said that teachers and your own father called you "lazy and stupid" and that you spent a lot of time covering up your difficulties with learning. What were some of the ways you tried to cover up the fact that reading was extremely difficult for you? What signs should parents or teachers look for if they suspect their child or student is "masking" a learning difficulty?

A: I definitely was the class clown. If the teacher read a story out loud, and one of the characters was a hunter shooting ducks out of the air, I became that hunter. I got behind my desk, made the class laugh, and was sent to the principal.

Here it is. A child with a learning challenge is embarrassed by their inability to keep up. They already feel bad. All they need is support, support, a little more support, and then some support. And, ALL of that support must be positive.

Q: Although you endured the pains of growing up with dyslexia, you endured and succeeded in life. What qualities did you have that helped you overcome your learning disability and how can adults help children develop and cultivate those qualities?

A: If there was one word that I would pass on to all children, it would be tenacity. What your school abilities are, and how you perceive your dreams are two very different things. I was not very good at spelling, math, reading, geography, history — I was, however, great at lunch. That being said, my dream of being an actor never wavered.

Being smart does not necessarily correspond to school work. There is intuitive smart, emotional smart, street smart, knowing-how-the-cosmos-works smart. Those incredible pods of intelligence can create a wonderful life without ever getting a passing grade in geometry.

Q: You've said your own son is dyslexic as well. How do you hope this show, Reading and the Brain, can help make a difference for kids like your son?

A: I hope that Reading and the Brain allows children of all shapes and sizes, of all ages to know that they have a wondrous gift inside them, and it is their job to figure out what it is, dig it out, and give it to the world.

Q: You understand far more about dyslexia than your own father. As a parent, what special steps do you take to help your own son handle his dyslexia?

A: My wife and I told our 3 children, "As long as you have tried your hardest, whatever your report card says is all right with us."

I've also learned along the way that when my son or daughter listened to music while they did their homework, that it was not necessarily a distraction, but rather the music helped the kids to concentrate. It actually created a barrier between the outside world — whatever else was happening in the apartment — and their focus. When I finally stopped saying "Hey, you cannot do your homework and listen to music at the same time," and I saw good grades coming home, I realized that this was true.

Q: How does Hank Zipzer fit into this? Do you pull dialogue and situations from your own personal experiences and memories?

A: Hank Zipzer is based on the emotional truth of the stress, the pain, the embarrassment, the humiliation of being dyslexic. AND, what is vital to me, is that the stories are told through humor. The results from the 1000's of letters that Lin Oliver, my writing partner and I receive from all over the country, is that kids, parents, teachers, and librarians all identify.

Q: What's ahead for Hank Zipzer?

A: As of this writing, August 1, 2006, number ten is about to hit the stores, number eleven, The Curtain Went Up, My Pants Fell Down, will be out in April 2007, and Lin Oliver and I just started Chapter two of the twelfth novel, Barfing in the Backseat: A Zipzer Family Road Trip.