|Phil Yeh, Founder of Cartoonists Across America.|
In 1986, Phil Yeh, a young cartoonist in
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
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
"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
A 20th anniversary tour, organized around a five-month exhibition of Yeh's trademark dinosaur paintings, kicked off in April 2006 at the
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
"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."