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."


Klaus Leven was a young artist in Recklinghausen, Germany, when he read about Yeh's work in 1995. He traveled to the United States just to meet Yeh and join the campaign. "Phil changed my life completely," says Leven, who says Yeh inspired him to create his own line of literate comics featuring characters Joey and Gonz. "I loved all the great things he was doing for kids and wanted to do that, too."


A 20th anniversary tour, organized around a five-month exhibition of Yeh's trademark dinosaur paintings, kicked off in April 2006 at the Cleveland (Ohio) Museum of Natural History. Yeh and friends went on to paint more than a dozen new murals across the country including the 20-foot masterpiece they splashed across the side of a truck in San Bernadino, California, in July with a little help from Phil Ortiz, another "Simpsons" cartoonist, and George Gladir, creator of Archie Comics' "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."


The anniversary tour also spawned a new vehicle for reaching children: cartoon workshops. Yeh began appearing at schools and libraries to conduct hands-on training to teach children how to create their own comics. By the end of 2006, he had worked with some 600 aspiring cartoonists during more than 50 workshops nationwide.


"Our kids spend more time on video games and electronic entertainment than any other kids in the world," Yeh says. "If we can get them interested in reading, writing, and drawing their own stories, which is the goal of these workshops, then there is hope."


The efforts are working, according to George Munoz, 16, of Tustin, California. "Phil inspired me to read more, despite my dyslexia," says Munoz, who attended one of Yeh's workshops and now writes and draws his own comic books. "He made me understand how important [reading] is, if I'm going to become an artist like him some day."


Even though America's illiteracy rate is still a staggering statistic, Yeh's motivation is as powerful as ever, stoked by the positive feedback he hears from kids like Munoz.


"These workshops taught me that kids love to learn," says Yeh. "The American spirit is still alive in terms of kids wanting to be an artist or a writer. They just need someone to show them how."

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