Phil Yeh, Founder of Cartoonists Across America.
From "Hometown Heroes: Real Stories of Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things All Across America" chronicled by American Profile.

In 1986, Phil Yeh, a young cartoonist in Lompoc, California, set out in a borrowed van with a few like-minded friends on a sneaky mission: to entice kids to read by first hooking them with cartoons.


Troubled by the fact that so many Americans were functionally illiterate, he organized a group called Cartoonists Across America to encourage kids to dive into books. Beginning with a cross country tour to 34 states and two Canadian provinces, Yeh (pronounced, "Yay") and his cohorts appeared at schools, shopping malls, and other public spots to paint murals, enlist literacy tutors, and give away original comic books with a reading-is-fun theme.


"We thought if the books had cartoons in them we could ‘trick' people into reading," Yeh says with a smile. His comics featured colorful, kid-friendly characters, such as dinosaurs, who urged children with a catchy, do-or-die motto: "Read: Avoid Extinction."


Yeh knew his technique could succeed because it worked for him as a youngster growing up in New Jersey. "I'm dyslexic," says Yeh. "I was always a terrible speller. But pictures and cartoons helped me learn to read. People—both kids and adults—can learn when something visual is there."


The first tour was received well and built momentum for subsequent excursions. As word spread, famous cartoonists such as Charles "Peanuts" Schulz and Matt "The Simpsons" Groening got on board, lending their endorsements or participating in Cartoonists Across America events. Barbara Bush, wife of then-president George H. W. Bush, invited Yeh and his team to a reception at the Library of Congress in 1989, and corporations, including McDonald's, Chevron, and American Airlines, helped with funding.


Now 52, Yeh has been spreading the message for more than two decades with the help of his fellow cartoonists. They've signed up hundreds of reading tutors nationwide, given away thousands of comic books, and painted more than 1,500 public murals (and a few billboards and city buses) touting the benefits of reading. While about 15 U.S. artists are Yeh's chief collaborators, many more have contributed to bigger events, such as a 1990 mural painting in Budapest, Hungary, that attracted more than 100 cartoonists from 40 countries.


"Phil was definitely an inspiration to me," says Jon J. Murakami, a cartoonist for the Hawaii Herald newspaper who joined Yeh early in his campaign and has remained active in his stable of volunteers. "His energy amazed me to no end. And he's still out there, trying to promote literacy and better the world.