The optimistic actor took the hardship and turned it into a much-loved children's book series based on his life, called "Hank Zipzer, The World's Greatest Underachiever." The 14 books are co-authored by Lin Oliver, a writer and producer of family books and movies.
"Wherever my learning challenge, wherever my dyslexia bumps up against my life - or the world throughout my entire life - we put in the fourth-grader," Winkler said.
Hank is a high-spirited, lovable kid who consistently finds himself in a mess of trouble. Through his adventures, the books explore living with a learning challenge in a funny and lighthearted style - exemplified by playful titles like "The Curtain Went Up, My Pants Fell Down" and "I Got a 'D' in Salami."
Many parts of Hank's life are taken straight from Winkler's childhood. They both grew up on the Westside of Manhattan, in the same building. The neighborhood, stores, park, school and even teachers are real people and places.
"I used to think that I would like to cut my learning challenge out of my brain like a disease," said the author. "Now I would not touch a hair on its head, because maybe the struggle has allowed me to achieve what I have achieved in my life."
Winkler was able to overcome his learning disability, pursuing higher education and eventually earning a Master of Fine Arts from the Yale School of Drama. From there, a successful acting career blossomed.
When he landed the role of Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli on "Happy Days," the adored 1950s leather-jacketed tough guy catapulted him to stardom. Winkler said the character will be a part of his identity forever, but he never gets tired of the Fonz.
"He gave me the world," he said. "My jacket is in the Smithsonian, along with the lunch box. I have a star on Hollywood Boulevard ... I have been able to have this incredible life and the cornerstone of my life I'm sure - or one of the four cornerstones - is the Fonz."
Now the actor, writer, producer and director can add New York Times bestselling author to the list. Winkler said of his many accomplishments, the Hank Zipzer books are what make him the most proud.
"I never thought in a million years that I would be able to write a book, and now this is No. 14. And to me that's pretty amazing," he said.
In the 14th and latest book, "The Life of Me (Enter at Your Own Risk)," Hank gets held after school for a special reading program, but cheers up when the teacher lets him make a scrapbook of his life instead of a written autobiography. He also develops a crush for the first time in the series.
People love the books' humor, said Winkler. He once received a letter from a kid who wrote, "I laughed so hard my funny bone fell out of my body." Parents write him saying their children were reluctant to read until they picked up a Hank Zipzer book.
"Here's what I see. I see teachers, librarians, mothers, kids wait in line and tell me in detail how much they laughed at the adventures of Hank," he said. "And I want to tell you that is extraordinary."
The books, which sell for $4.99, are written for all children to enjoy. They're not meant as a lesson or "how-to" for kids with learning disabilities, Winkler said. They're just funny adventures of an outgoing kid, who happens to be dyslexic.
Indeed the theme throughout the books can be applied to any person, big or small: Face the obstacles in front of you and find some way to get past them. If you can't hop over, go around. If you can't do it the conventional way, think outside the box.
Winkler credits this approach to adversity with the extraordinary life he's led, comparing it to one of those toys with sand in the bottom that you punch down and it bounces right back up.
"That's how I see my life. I am that toy," he said. "You go down, you get up. You dust yourself off, and you keep going toward your dream."
Meet 'The Fonz'
What: Book signing
Who: Henry Winkler, actor and author
Where: Rakestraw Books, 409 Railroad Ave. in Danville
When: 11 a.m., Saturday, May 17
Cost: $6 (includes a choice of books). Advance reservations recommended.
This story contains 798 words.
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