NI Railways Book Club

Henry 'The Fonz' Winkler helps to launch Translink's imaginative book reading initiative

Have you ever considered that taking the train gives you extra time to yourself – time to do something really enjoyable such as getting lost in a great book?

In conjunction with Bookcrossing.com and publishers Pan Macmillan, Translink has chosen Henry ‘The Henry Winkler reads to children at Belfast's Central StationFonz’ Winkler to help launch the new NI Railways Book Club at Belfast’s Central Station. It’s an unlikely setting for the man who put the ‘Aaay!’ in Happy Days, but he’s loving every minute.

‘I’m 63 years old and I’m having a great time!’ Winkler booms across the concourse in between reading from his latest children’s novel and autographing memorabilia.

NI Railways Book Club is a new initiative from Translink to help promote reading amongst children and adults. As part of the initiative six static bookcases have been installed in railway stations across the country. Passengers are encouraged to leave books on the shelves for other passengers to pick up and read on their journeys.

Winkler's special appearance is part of a nationwide campaign to promote his and co-author Lin Oliver’s series of books, Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever. Since 2003, the range of 16 titles has sold more than two million copies and, Winkler reveals, was inspired by the actor’s own childhood struggle with dyslexia.

‘The books are about a little boy in the fourth and fifth year of school,’ he says. ‘He has learning challenges. He has a hard time. The books are really about my life. The emotion is real, but we exaggerated the humour. I never actually flooded my classroom, for example.’

Translink’s Ursula Kelleher is thrilled to welcome Winkler on his first visit to Ireland. ‘We’re extremely pleased The Fonz – sorry, Henry – could join us today,’ she comments. ‘He approached us to say he would like to come to Belfast before travelling on the Enterprise to Dublin. We sent out a staff circular and got such a huge response. I think everyone was satisfied with their autographs and their books.’

Running for 11 seasons between 1974 and 1984, Happy Days launched Winkler’s career. Playing slick-haired, leather-jacketed Fonzie ‘unlocked the entire world for me’, he remarks. As well as appearing in the super-cool sitcom, the New York-born star is a respected Hollywood producer and the director of such movies as Memories of Me and Cop and a Half.

Hank ZipzerIn Belfast, the audience is split between local schoolchildren listening to extracts from the Hank Zipzer novels and men and women in their 20s, 30s and 40s with DVD covers and Fonzie action figures to get signed. Winkler happily scrawls his name on anything and everything, and poses for photographs with fans.

‘Can I have a picture?’ asks one star-struck youngster, clutching a freshly-bought Zipzer book.

‘Of course you can. Are you kidding? I get a dollar, you know. Do you have a dollar?’

‘Er, no,’ mumbles the boy.

‘Oh, we’ll take one anyway. Thank you so much for buying my book!’

Next, a middle-aged lady is looking for an autograph. Winkler flashes that famous grin: ‘Get over here, baby!’ Handing over her book, the fan swoons as Henry inks the inscription: ‘I… am… glad… we… met.’

Winkler is a whirlwind of wisecracks, charisma and old-school Hollywood hucksterism. ‘How did we do?’ he shouts to the assistants who have been hocking novels to eager fans.

Later, he describes the character of Hank in the books: ‘On Halloween, people go as Darth Vader, a ghoul or a nurse. Hank goes as a table in an Italian restaurant. It doesn’t work out for him very well. He can’t even get through the door – but he thinks his imagination’s got personality.’

While the books have served as a study aid for children with dyslexia, Winkler says their primary purpose is to entertain. He illustrates the point by thumbing through to a chapter about lists.

‘Here, look at this – “Ten reasons why Hank Zipzer should not write a five-paragraph essay on what I did last summer: six, if I sit too long, my butt falls asleep and starts to snore, which wakes my sister.” Another thing we do is to make some of the chapters only a paragraph long, so that if a kid has to read a chapter, and he reads that – he’s done. He sees a lot of white. There’s a lot of white page.’
The Fonz
Myles Kavanagh – an Elvis Presley lookalike from Kilkenny – has travelled to Belfast with his wife, Mary. ‘I’ve come up today to see a legend,’ he says. ‘He’s the next best thing to Elvis.’ The mega-fan is sporting a red bomber jacket, white shorts and a jet-black quiff. ‘I’ll be there again in Dublin,’ Kavanagh beams. ‘All the fans of The Fonz are coming and they’re all dressing up in Happy Days gear. Henry’s in for some surprise – like Elvis, he’ll be all shook up!’

But the last word has to go to Winkler himself. Reflecting on a day well spent and several hundred books sold, he has some words of encouragement for schoolchildren across the world: ‘I’m an actor, a producer and a director, and I wrote 16 children’s novels. Yet I’m in the bottom three per cent in the country academically. If I can do it, anybody can do it!’

For more information about Translink NI Railways Book Club, visit http://www.translink.co.uk/tlnirbookclub.asp.

Andrew Johnston

Sign up for the CultureNorthernIreland enewsletter and be in with a chance of winning a signed copy of Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver's Summer School! What Genius Thought That Up? (number eight in the Hank Zipzer series) on Thursday, June 4.