After Julie Bradley’s third grade English-language learners read “The World’s Greatest Underachiever,” they immediately wanted to reach out to the book’s author, Henry Winkler.
Henry—best known for his role of Fonzie in “Happy Days”—began writing the children’s book series in 2003. The books feature Hank Zipzer, a young boy with dyslexia who navigates the challenges of growing up with learning differences using a strong sense of humor.
“My students really connected with Hank, the main character,” says Julie. “As English-language learners, they have reading challenges like Hank does. One of my students really connected with him and shared that, just like Hank, words disappear from his brain.”
The inspiration for Hank Zipzer is very personal for Henry, as he was labeled an underachiever throughout his childhood because of his undiagnosed dyslexia.
“As an adult, Henry chose to write children’s books with a main character that has learning struggles like he did,” explains Julie. “This is why his books are in our reading unit about helping: Henry wants to help other people through the books, and my students really admired him for that.”
The students wrote a letter to Henry to share how much they enjoyed and related to his book. They emphasized how they found Hank to be brave even though he struggled in school.
To their delight, Henry wrote back within one week, and included autographed photos to each student.
“Henry’s response meant so much to my students,” adds Julie. “As English-language learners, sometimes others don’t see their strengths because of the language barrier, but Henry’s actions really helped show my students that their words and voices have power.”
Read Henry’s full letter to students below:
Henry’s letter to students
“Dear Shane, Cruz, Jocelyne & Mrs. B!
You must be so proud, because your letters sound so smart, and thoughtful. Why??? Because you ARE.
Maybe the best thing on the earth, besides a great cheeseburger and fly-fishing for trout, is writing a book with my partner Lin that makes you laugh. Hank is named after me, although no one, except for my best real life friend Frank, calls me Hank.
The feelings that Hank has and expresses in all the stories are true. They are what I felt trying to get through school with learning challenges. On the other hand, a lot of the funny situations are exaggerated to entertain you.
Most of the characters in the books are combinations of people that Lin and I either know, or have met in the past. Since I never had a grandmother or grandfather, Papa Pete represents the grandfather I would have loved to have in my life. And yes, Miss Adolf was my real teacher at P.S. 87, and OH, was she mean, not like YOUR fabulous teacher.
Hank Zipzer is my very first attempt at writing books, and since I don’t use a computer, Lin Oliver, my partner, helps me more than I can tell you. We have so much fun writing together. If there is a will, you will find a way to make things happen.
The most important thing for you to remember is that learning differences do not take away how brilliant you really are. A learning challenge doesn’t have to stop you from reaching your goals. It didn’t stop me.
You are all powerful! Read your hearts out.