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Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

Henry Winkler & Lin Oliver Put Learning Disabilities in the Spotlight with Popular Hank Zipzer Series

There are few American icons more popular and recognized than apple pie, baseball, and Fonzie. That’s right—Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli—“The Fonz” from the television show Happy Days was ranked by TV Guide as fourth in a list of 50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time.

From snapping his fingers to turn on lights to pounding on the hood to get a car started, it seemed Fonzie could do it all. Little did viewers know that Henry Winkler, the actor known as “The Fonz,” couldn’t do it all. In fact, he couldn’t do one basic thing: read.

Throughout his childhood, youth, and young adulthood, Winkler struggled with reading, math, science, and learning in general. His parents thought he was just lazy and would force him to sit at a desk and study for hours. But everything he worked so hard to get into his brain seemed to simply fall out and leave his mind blank.

“One out of five kids has a learning disability; that is 20 percent of the population!” – Henry Winkler

It wasn’t until he was in his 30s when he finally understood what the problem was: dyslexia. “The first book that I read was called The Clan of the Cave Bear (Crown, 1980). I was 31 years old; and until that moment, I thought I could not read. I was so intimidated.”

Since being diagnosed with, and coming to understand the complexities of, dyslexia, Winkler has been on a crusade to educate others about learning challenges. To do this, Winkler embarked on a writing project with Lin Oliver that brought Hank Zipzer to life. Loosely based on Winkler’s life experiences, Zipzer also has problems with reading, math, and learning.

“The husband of one of Lin’s best friends was my manager for 60 days until his company imploded. He is still one of the best in the business. But one day during that time, he suggested I write books for children about my learning challenges since there was a lull in my acting career. Because of my experience, I rejected the idea of writing a book. Several days later, he made the suggestion again and this time said he would introduce me to Lin Oliver who knows everything about children’s books. So we had lunch near Paramount Studios and hatched Hank Zipzer. We then found an agent and sent the idea to five publishers. Three publishers said ‘no.’ One said ‘maybe.’ One publisher said ‘yes.’ They gave us a contract for four novels, and we jumped at it. We are now working on the 29th novel we’ve written together.”

There is no doubt Lin Oliver, a book, movie, and television writer and film producer, was the right partner for Winkler. She began her writing career in first grade with a prize-winning poem. She went on to co-found the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and has written numerous children’s books and hundreds of television episodes.

“Reading is the activity I engage in most. I read everything. I don’t have a reading difficulty; it is something I do all the time. But working on the series with Henry has sensitized me to the fact that there are lots of ways to get information. Reading is only one of them. I am very verbal.”

“And I learn through my ears,” adds Winkler, “because reading is hard for me even today.”

“The underlying theme of what we’ve written is each individual is unique. Each person’s path is unique. Any bullying or mockery of differences is unacceptable. What will make someone great is understanding what s/he is good at and following that path. That notion is central to our body of work. It is something we talk about—how amazing and wonderful it is that we are all different.” – Lin Oliver

“The ways people learn are infinite,” says Oliver. “If you just find the right modality for each child, learning becomes unobstructed. There are multiple kinds of intelligences. Most of our academic programs, including college, emphasize a particular kind of learning. I really have difficulty with standardized tests as the only measure of achievement. Common Core is trying to address that with more experienced-based learning and more creative and critical thinking skills. That is crucial because the typical classroom model of having to learn exactly in the way of the passive learner and having to master just the content is antiquated and discourages a lot of really talented kids from academics.”

“It is really important for children to know that school does not define them,” Winkler says. “No matter how difficult learning is for them, it has nothing to do with how brilliant they are. If a child doesn’t do well, then self-image plummets like a rock to the bottom of the ocean. When Lin and I travel all over the world, we ask children, ‘Hey, what are you great at?’ Every single child knows what they are great at. If we are going to maintain greatness in our country and in the world, we need children to function at what they are great at.”

“You have greatness within you.” – Henry Winkler

Hank Zipzer definitely knows what he is great at, but he is also very aware of his weaknesses. The keys to his success, however, are his resourcefulness, his tenacity, and his friends. “His friends support him and take care of him,” says Winkler. “They just really love him.” Oliver continues, “Hank’s resourcefulness is really important. We can portray someone with learning challenges as a victim or portray him as a winner who has everything to give the world. That’s what Hank has and what Henry has: the desire to find ways to work around obstacles. That makes Hank an appealing, strong, adorable character—not a victim.”

“I’ve always defined myself as that punching toy with the sand in the bottom. There were certainly times when I thought ‘I can’t do this’ and ‘I’m not going to do this,’ but I would always bounce back. I get up, dust myself off, and try again. What I say to children and to anyone who will listen is ‘all things are possible but it is only up to you and your will—don’t expect somebody else to clear your path.’”

With 18 books and more than 2.6 million in print, The New York Times best-selling book series for middle-grade students has come to its conclusion. However, a new series is underway: Here’s Hank! (Grosset & Dunlap). These chapter books written for students in first and second grades introduce a young Hank Zipzer before he was diagnosed with learning differences. It features the Dyslexie typeface designed by Christian Boer, a dyslexic graphic designer. “Ours is the first book series to ever use that font in America,” shares Oliver. “It is a really pleasurable font to read for all kids.”

“The plan is for eight Here’s Hank! books. Three are out, two are completed, and we are working on the sixth,” says Winkler. “The newest one is Stop That Frog! (Grosset & Dunlap, 2014). Hank takes home the class frog and within 10 minutes of arriving at his apartment, the frog is gone. In the book we are writing now, Hank goes on a field trip to the zoo and wanders away. Somehow he manages to get inside the elephant enclosure and somehow he plays soccer with a 15,000-pound elephant. The humor we write is completely exaggerated but the emotion is based in reality. We’re having fun.”

“You can’t expect literacy when kids are expected to grind through the material,” Oliver says. The point of literacy is to expose oneself to relatable characters and experiences that are pleasurable. Literacy comes from practice reading. If kids are enjoying the reading experience, they are not aware of the practice. That is why our books are funny. The first goal of our books is that children will enjoy them. We hope they will laugh and be entertained and recognize themselves on the pages.”

Michael Hall, New York Times Bestselling Picture Book Author and Illustrator

Michael Hall is a New York Times bestselling picture book author and illustrator based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As the co-owner and principal at Hall Kelley Inc., he is also a highly successful graphic designer and entrepreneur. And, he had a career in the biomedical field. Quite the accomplishments for a man whose father thought he was lazy.

When Hall was about eight years old, he was diagnosed as dyslexic. “For years someone would take me out of my class and into a little room where I did reading exercises. It all seemed very creepy and primitive to me. I remember having to read pages from a book while a metal curtain slowly obscured the page from top to bottom. I think the idea was to push me to read faster. My father thought dyslexia was another word for lazy. I was lazy, but that’s another matter.”

“Early on, I became interested in making images that are built to exist on a two-dimensional page rather than using perspective and light and shadow to suggest three dimensions. Actually, my world is relatively flat. I lost the vision in my left eye about fifteen years ago, so my depth perception is lacking. I still occasionally run into people on my left side from time to time.”

Though reading posed a challenge, Hall always was interested in writing. “I remember trying to write a cowboy song in kindergarten. I got as far as ‘I am a cowboy and I ride a white horse’ before running out of things to say about cowboys. It was hard. I wanted to be some sort of writer early in life, but I had an analytical inclination, an interest in nature, and dyslexia. All led me to eventually focus on biochemistry over English in college.”

Petunia

“My family lived on a farm for 22 years. When my younger daughter, Alice, became interested in having a pet pig, Debra and I gave her all sorts of projects to do to prove she could handle the commitment. Over the next year, she called our bluff and did everything we asked. That is how Petunia, who we found at a rescue farm, came to live with us.

“It didn’t take long for Petunia to become an essential part of our family. She hung out with us on our deck and joined us on our regular family walks. She liked to wait until we were about 30 yards ahead of her, come storming toward us, blow about 10 yards past us, and wait for us again. She lived to the ripe old age of 13 before passing away suddenly. I still show pictures of her during school visits. The kids love it. We moved back to the city a year ago and, so far, none of the kids have asked how we keep a pig in the city.”

After working at several academic and corporate laboratories, Hall became bored with the routine work. “I knew I had to go back to school to get to the more interesting, creative stuff. But impending graduate school can have a way of making you think hard about what you really want to do. That’s when I became aware of a thing called graphic design. It seemed just right for me. I studied design for a year, moved to Minneapolis, and opened my own shop. A few years later, Debra Kelley became my partner and wife. We moved to the country, ran our business, and raised our two girls over the next 25 years.”

“My favorite picture books are the ones that you can revisit over the years and continue to find something new and relevant. I think of picture books as more than a stepping stone to other kinds of reading, but a legitimate form of literature — and art — in their own right. I hope that my books have something in them for all ages. For children, I hope my books will help them broaden their sense of wonder, celebrate their differences, and come to know the power of their imaginations.”

As Hall developed corporate identities and logos and wrote and illustrated brochures and slide shows for clients, an idea occurred to him: picture books were more a series of annotated images than illustrated stories. “I made six picture book dummies over the next several years and sent them to Anna Olswanger who agreed to be my agent. From there, things went fairly quickly. Anna introduced me to Virginia Duncan at Greenwillow who became—and continues to be—my editor. Five books later, I’m just beginning to know how to make a picture book.”

Michael Hall Spreads

As an emerging picture book creator, Hall incorporates his ideas and experiences into his books. In the upcoming book Red: A Crayon’s Story (Greenwillow, 2015), the story of a blue crayon mislabeled as red, some of the busybody characters paraphrase his father: “He’s got to press harder.” “Really apply himself!” And in Cat Tale (Greenwillow, 2012), there is a spread toward the end of the book where he tried to make a picture of what reading is like for dyslexics.

A Cat Tale book spread

In general, Hall’s books feature a quiet simplicity that initially masks complex concepts. From finding happiness in transformation (Perfect Square, Greenwillow, 2011) to describing the emotions associated with hearts (My Heart Is Like a Zoo, Greenwillow, 2010) and the benefit of collecting all the facts (It’s an Orange Aardvark!, Greenwillow, 2014), the story ideas and accompanying art are unique.

Perfect Square     It's an Orange Aardvark
“It might be some sort of mental disorder, but I’m really drawn to simple things. I love simple design, simple stories, simple architecture. I avoid complicated food with too many ingredients and overly complicated music. I like to use unadorned shapes, primary colors, and simple textures and simple, wobbly lines. In design, these are strategies for making images that are timeless.

Michael Hall Icons: Food    Michael Hall Posters

My Heart is Like a Zoo book cover“Another important element is ambiguity. My first book, My Heart is Like a Zoo, has a frog made from a heart, four rectangles for legs, and an eye. I rejected an earlier version, made with six hearts, because it looked too much like a frog. Once you see that it’s a frog, you simply stop seeing it. Your mind wants to move on. On the other hand, if it keeps flipping back and forth between a frog and a heart, it’s more intriguing.

Cat Tale book cover“Many of my books begin with the idea of a visual or verbal game. In Cat Tale, the game was writing a chain of simple sentences in which the main noun in one sentence is followed by a same sounding verb in the next sentence. This approach generated a sequence of fairly silly events—which was the point. But from there I tried to make the almost random events into something like a story. I spent many hours looking at different sequences of homophones and homonyms. My walls were covered with Post-it notes. Eventually, I saw it as a book about reading. So, for me, it also had to be about dyslexia.”

Halls books have found favor in homes, libraries, and schools. “It was a lucky surprise to discover that my first two books inspire art activities in classrooms. I’ve received many wonderful heart animals and square creations from children. A blogger has written about using Perfect Square in schools, and my publisher has also been good enough to make a printed teaching guide for my first four books.”

Tablets

“I do most of my reading on an iPad. I love that I can carry a thousand e-books onto a plane. But I’m bullish on the future of picture books. Unlike most types of writing, picture book stories are intimately tied into the physical structure of the book. The stories and rhythms are built on limitations inherent in the book itself. It’s like an extended game of peek-a-boo. So a picture book translated into an e-book would be something entirely different.

“One day an app might replace the picture book, and it might be far superior to a picture book, but it won’t be a picture book. I think it will be quite some time before an app becomes as acceptable a gift as an actual picture book. Eventually, someone will surely invent a ‘wrap-app’ so a child can electronically unwrap the app on his iPad — possibly after shaking it to hear a prerecorded rattling sound as a clue to its contents.”