Winkler: I am so angry at myself that I wasted so much time not doing now what has become a passion—only because I said, "I can't" instead of "You know what? I'm just going to try. Then I know whether I can do it or not."
Wong: What has it been like writing a book?
Lin and I, yesterday morning, wrote the first chapter of our 28th novel. Holy moly. We found that we don't write down to the kids—we just write comedies with the real truth, of the frustration, of trying to look up a word in the dictionary … They're not self-help books. It's not like, Woe is me, I got a problem. It's I'm trying, I really am. Hank Zipzer's cup is half full—he just spills everywhere. But it's comedy first. We make kids laugh.
Wong: I wanted to ask you about the role of comedy. What is it about these stories that instilling them with humor is so important to your mission?
Winkler: They say that food is the way is the front door of a man's castle. So [with] comedy, the kids don't know that they're doing something they can't do—they're just enjoying themselves, and it propels them to the next sentence. It makes them feel good and they're having a good time while they're reading. And it works for everybody—everybody likes to laugh.
Wong: Are the books written for all types of learners, including those without dyslexia, too?
Winkler: Yes! It's not about just that he's dyslexic—he happens to be dyslexic. His friends, Frankie and Ashley … They don't judge Hank. The kids love Hank. They love that he has friends that really find him funny.
Wong: I know the adventures of Hank Zipzer are loosely based on your experience. What are some of the similarities and differences between the series and your life?
Winkler: [The character] Mr. Rock is based on my high school music teacher. He literally said one sentence to me: "When you get out of here, you're going to be great. You're going to be fine."
And Ms. Adolf—Hank's teacher in the third, fourth, and fifth grade—was my actual teacher, the worst teacher on the planet.
Winkler: Well, there was a teacher at Emerson College … She understood me and allowed me to be confused and whatever it was that I was in class and still be able to somehow negotiate the material. And then you never forget that—I graduated in '67, so that was '65, '66? And that kind of energy, that kind of compassion, that kind of understanding stays with you forever. Outside of the family, the teacher is the most powerful influence on a child.
Wong: Are there other teachers in your life like Mr. Rock that you recall as being particularly supportive of you?
Wong: What advice would you give to teachers today?
Winkler: The student who is acting up in the class probably didn't wake up in the morning and go, "Yeah, I think I'll be an idiot today." What happens is parents, teachers—they all think, "Oh my God, if I could only control him, her." "Oh my god, if I could only get him to sit down and focus." There has got to be another way, there's got to be something that totally engages that child. And you have to find what that is and send them in that direction, which might not be subtraction [or whatever subject you're teaching].