The Henry Finkler interview
'Wow ! The Fonz. How cool.' Tell anyone you are interviewing Henry Winkler and the response is universally positive and envious. Everyone knows The Fonz – or Fonzie when they are feeling especially relaxed - and just thinking about him seems to bring on a happy state of nostalgia. Julia Eccleshare talked to Henry Finkler for Books for Keeps.
Celebrities and children's books don't always mix but in Henry Winkler they come together as a potent combination which Henry uses to the great benefit of all children who have extra obstacles to overcome on the journey to becoming readers. It’s a cause that’s very dear to Henry’s heart and one that he’s contributed to very significantly. So significantly that he’s won many plaudits including being awarded an honorary OBE in 2011 by the UK government for his campaigning services in support of the earlier identification and better understanding of children who have a special educational need or disability.
I first heard Henry Winkler speak three years ago at 10 Downing Street. The guest of Sarah Brown who endorsed the First News My Way campaign which highlights and supports the needs of children who read differently, he gave an uplifting and amusing address to a reception full of authors, publishers, campaigners and many children whose lives had been affected by his work with the newspaper.
The occasion and Henry’s role in it immediately tells you something about the kind of person he is; he is not on this mission for a short term or easy fix. He’s doing it because he believes in the critical difference it can make. He knows a lot about the challenges for these children first hand as his own experience of school was dogged by the fact that he suffered acutely from dyslexic – a fact that wasn’t properly uncovered or diagnosed until he was in his thirties. The confidence that he understood the problems got him started as a campaigner and he is now further buoyed up about what he is achieving – the testimonials full of heartfelt outpourings from the thousands of children he meets confirm it. They realise that they have met someone who really understands them.
I was bearing this in mind when I met Henry last month on a rain soaked day in the middle of his incredibly hectic UK visit. Henry was in England to promote the third year of My Way - and his new book Ghost Buddy. He was dashing from one huge school event to another and initially had no time for more than a phone interview. But I wanted more than that. I wanted to meet him for ‘real’ not because he's forever The Fonz- although that is fun - but because I knew he had important things to say. Luckily, I was found a brief slot at the end of the day on which he’d just that morning arrived from the US and after he had already addressed a large gathering of school children.
Of course, Henry has done this kind of interview many, many times before. He knows all the answers about what he does - empowering children, giving them the confidence, making them feel good about themselves - could be summed up by saying 'believe in yourself and, if you do, you will achieve and things will go well'. It's a great and powerful message and of course I go along with it – mostly! I could have just sat back and let him talk it out and I would have trusted and believed in his sincerity as he did so. It’s a great good-news story and we all like hearing those.
But some children are not going to make it; they are not going to become readers because they have very serious and complex problems. I happened to have just spent time with one and was thinking particularly of the effect on the parents of having a child for who all the charisma of the Fonz himself even at full-blast will never change the fundamental problem. So, in challenging mode I pushed Henry on that. What does he really believe? Henry resisted a bit initially. He's not used to people asking what if it doesn’t work? He’s used to saying his excellent piece with the appealing twin characteristics of charm and conviction behind it and everyone joins in the big hurrah and that’s it. But Harry is very smart and he is both serious and reflective. He slows, pauses and reluctantly agrees. 'Yes. There are some children who can't and we have to think about think them. But, ' and we are quickly back on the theme, ‘mostly, the children who don't read are suffering because they don't get any praise. They feel they can't achieve and they are being made to work in the wrong way for them. That’s why they can’t keep up. They feel isolated and frustrated and that can easily lead them into joining gangs and into taking up bullying behaviour.’
It's a very good message and a true one. Lack of self-esteem is one of the biggest problems of those with the lowest literacy levels and Henry is right to point out that it is only by tackling the one that the other will follow. And he’s quickly onto the often rehearsed correlation between those with low levels of literacy and the prison population. All of this is wrapped up in a strong anti-gang culture and anti-bullying message that is at the heart of this year’s First News My Way campaign. Henry in at the centre of the battle to get the message heard by the two groups who are most affected by it; the government and the children themselves. Because Henry ‘the Fonz’ Finkler really does know what he is talking about, with both audiences he makes a quick and strong connection. Even when he is addressing a hall-full of children he can home in on the particular child who most need his support and whose life he can most easily change.
Across the US and on this tour of the UK that I was interrupting, Henry works tirelessly raising the vision and spirits of children. It's work that he loves as he knows he really can make a difference. He has a very ready flow of anecdotal stories about the way his message has changed the attitude to reading of a great many children: it's not a complicated pitch. Henry is simple in both his philosophy and practice. We talk a lot about the different tricks dyslexics use to disguise what they can’t do and to cope with what they need to be able to do. Henry knows them from his own school years and even from the time when he was an actor and had to learn his scripts in a different way from everyone else. That’s enough to propel his thinking. Armed with it, he doesn’t need to engage with complicated theory about how children learn to read or which whole school or individual child approach may be most effective. What he knows is that far too many children get quickly left behind in school, their confidence in all learning and reading in particular crashes and they become miserable. All he wants to do it to spot those children, boost their spirits, lift their aspirations and let them fly. Under his eye and propelled by his magnetic character, I'm sure all he says works, does work.
I'd want to read better with him in the room and I'd certainly feel that I could. Henry’s enthusiasm is the calling card but the close personal knowledge which he articulates openly and simply is what underpins Henry’s whole approach and gives him such credibility. ‘As a child I suffered from not being able to read,’ he tells me. ‘You feel bad about yourself when you can’t do what every other kid in the class seems to find easy.’ At school in New York City, Henry got consistently low grades in school, achieving far less well than his highly successful father, who owned and ran a lumber company, expected or wanted. From teenage years onwards he knew he wanted to be an actor but initially, his problems with literacy learning almost lost him the opportunity. ‘That was something I could never do at a school because at middle and high school you had to have a certain grade average to be in a play. I never made that grade average.’ To his own amazement and delight, he successfully applied to Yale Drama School and so began his acting career including the decade of Happy Days which gave him such pleasure and success.
Remembering that feeling of exclusion and as part of the huge payback for all that has gone so right for him, Henry does all he can to help the next generation to enjoy reading more. To help those challenged readers further, in addition to his campaigning, he has teamed up with Lin Oliver to co-write Hank Zipster: The World’s Greatest Underachiever which quickly established itself on the New York Times best seller list. Now, also working with Lin Oliver, he’s added a new series, Ghost Buddy: Zero to Hero soon to be followed by Ghost Buddy: Mind if I Read Your Mind. In both series, Henry’s ready humour and his instinctive defence of the under-dog boy make them irresistible to his target audience. And irresistible to adult readers too who could learn a lot from Henry’s kind eye on the complexities of growing from boy to man when you are not very sure what you are doing.
I’ve been lucky; those friends were right to be envious. Not only can I read the books. I’ve also had a chance to meet the real Fonz and to learn at first hand what a passionate commitment he has to improving the literacy and life expectations of the next generation.
Henry Winkler & Lin Oliver: Hank Zipster: The World’s Greatest Underachiever, Walker Books
Henry Winkler & Lin Oliver, Ghost Buddy: Zero to Hero; Ghost Buddy: Mind If I Read Your Mind (2nd August, 2012), Scholastic