Power to the children
01 July 2010 By Ian Soutar
Out for a quiet curry in Pitsmoor on Tuesday night, Henry Winkler soon found himself surrounded by fans with camera phones.
He took it in good spirit, since it has come with the territory ever since he won everyone’s heart in the 1970s as the leather-jacketed cool dude The Fonz, from long-running Seventies TV family show Happy Days. But it was in his capacity as author of 17 children’s books and an advocate for children’s rights that he was here in Sheffield as keynote speaker at the Children’s Media Conference expounding his theories on enabling and empowering kids.
Winkler is on a UK tour for the My Way! campaign organised by First News, the newspaper for children, to raise awareness of the fact that one in five children experience learning challenges in their formative years.
He has been going into schools around the country to introduce British children to his Hans Zipzer stories featuring a 10-year-old boy with dyslexia. “They’re funny stories about a resourceful boy who sees the glass as always half full.” They are inspired by Winkler’s struggle growing up with his own dyslexia. “You never lose your learning challenge, you learn to negotiate it,” he says.
Things may have improved since his day, he says, but “it’s so important to talk about it because there is still the pain and the embarrassment and the feeling that no-one quite believes it. One out of five have some sort of learning challenge. The only way is to completely embrace them with enthusiasm and accept the fact that it is true. So many children get lost down the cracks. It’s not just that they fail but it’s linked to self-esteem.” Winkler says that every child should be valued equally, not just on their academic or sporting prowess. “It is the job of us all, when talking to children, to try and find what quality is hiding inside and give it as a gift to the world. Even if you are slow at learning it has nothing to do with how brilliant you are.”
Nicky Cox, editor of First News who has been accompanying him on tour, has been struck by how Winkler so easily wins the hearts of the children. “By the time we come to leave there are often kids hanging on to his legs,” she says. But surely they are too young to have heard of The Fonz? “I just go in and say, ‘Hi I’m Henry, I’m a New Yorker and I’m a dad and a husband and we have two dogs, one’s a Labrapoodle…’ and they are soon with me. “It doesn’t matter how people know me. Some kids may have seen me in Adam Sandler movies, while those who are 20 to 30 know me from Arrested Development, a generation before that from Scream. When they see me some people are thinking one thing, others another.”
Winkler has introduced himself to a new generation of TV watchers, having joined the cast this year of hit comedy drama series Royal Pains (on Hallmark in the UK) to play the errant father of the two competing brothers at the centre of it all. “I love acting,” says the man who has even appeared in pantomime in Britain for the past four years. “America is missing out by not having something as joyful as panto. Unfortunately my family have put their foot down and said I must stay at home this Christmas holiday.”
Winkler has a new book coming out in the autumn, Ghost Buddy, for a slightly older readership of 11s and 12s. The Hank Zipzer books, co-authored by Lin Oliver and published by Walker Books, are targeted at ages 7 to 10 but should also appeal to older children who find reading more difficult. “The street he lives on was my street in New York, the teacher was my teacher and the school trip he goes on is the one my children went on,” he says. So where is home these days for the famous New Yorker? “My heart is in New York, my home (since September 18, 1973) is California and my soul is in Montana where I go fly fishing.” he says.
At the Children’s Media Conference Winkler is among 500 delegates who have convened at the Showroom Cinema from Wednesday to Friday for what is now established as the premier gathering in the UK for everyone involved in developing, producing and distributing content to youngsters. Other speakers at the three-day Children’s Media Conference which runs until Friday include children’s authors David Almond (Skellig), Francesca Simon (Horrid Henry) and Anthony Horowitz (Alex Rider, Foyle’s War), along with top film and TV executives