The Fonz's happy day out

4th July 2008 at 01:00
Actor's connection to primary school in Croydon led to him meeting education minister
Actor's connection to primary school in Croydon led to him meeting education minister

The Fonz is not the first person you expect to be advising ministers in England on teaching reading. But this week Henry Winkler, the Happy Days TV star turned children's author, seemed an unavoidable presence at education events.

Mr Winkler, 62, was guest of honour at the ceremony held to mark the first anniversary of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, handed out prizes at a regional teaching awards ceremony, and held forth on approaches to reading on the BBC Breakfast show sofa.

Of course it was not the cool Arthur Fonzarelli who turned up. The Brylcreemed black hair was grey and the leather jacket replaced by a sober combo of blazer, slacks and tie.

Mr Winkler used his visits to promote his Hank Zipzer children's books, based on his experiences as a boy with undiagnosed dyslexia.

His trip to the UK was in part because of the work he had done encouraging reluctant readers at a school in Croydon, south London.

John Robinson, head of Howard Primary School, first met Mr Winkler through his deputy, Jackie de Saulles. Ms de Saulles' sister manages a theatre company which for the last two years has produced Christmas pantomimes starring the actor. During one conversation, he suggested Howard pupils might enjoy one of his children's books.

"Our children absolutely devoured it," said Mr Robinson. "So we went onto Amazon and bought all the books, because we couldn't get them over here."

He therefore asked Mr Winkler to come into school and meet the pupils. "He came in, talked to the children, read from his book," Mr Robinson said. "It was very surreal. The adults were all saying, 'I remember watching him on TV'. But the kids just think he's an author."

Since then, Howard pupils have kept up an email correspondence with the Fonz.

"They tell him what they're doing, what they've read," said Mr Robinson. "And he tells them about his family, what he's doing in LA. They see him as their friend. They don't see him as a Hollywood superstar." In fact, when Howard pupils went to see Mr Winkler perform in panto as Captain Hook in Peter Pan last year, they refused to boo their friend.

Such was the enthusiasm among his pupils for the books, that Mr Robinson approached several British publishers, in the hope that they would produce UK editions. Helped by Nicky Cox, editor of children's newspaper First News, they were eventually successful.

"In a funny sort of way, we've had a part to play," said Mr Robinson.

"But he's made a difference to our children. Very often, these stars are a bit aloof, but he's been inspirational to our children. We hope never to lose contact."

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