In 1986, Phil Yeh, a young cartoonist in Lompoc, Calif. (pop. 41,103), 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 Yeah) 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.”
That first tour was well-received and built momentum for subsequent excursions. As word spread, famous cartoonists such as Charles (Snoopy) Schulz and Matt (The Simpsons) Groenig got on board, lending their endorsements or participating in Cartoonists Across America events. Barbara Bush, wife of then-President George H. 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.
Yeh, now 51, and his cast of fellow cartoonists have spread the literacy message for two decades. 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.”
Another cartoonist on the organization’s roster of contributors, 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. “He changed my life completely,” notes Leven, who says Yeh inspired him to create his own line of comics to promote reading. “I loved all the great things he was doing for kids and wanted to do that, too.”
A 20th anniversary tour this year, organized around a five-month exhibition of Yeh’s trademark dinosaur paintings, kicked off in April at the Cleveland (Ohio) Museum of Natural History. Yeh is scheduled to help paint a mural at the museum June 24-25.
This year’s tour also includes something new: cartoon workshops for kids. Yeh is appearing at schools and libraries across the nation, conducting hands-on training for children to learn to create their own comics.
“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.”
Yeh thrives on feedback from kids that lets him know his work is having a positive impact. “Phil inspired me to read more, despite my dyslexia,” says George Munoz, 14, of Tustin, Calif., who attended one of Yeh’s workshops and aspires to write and draw 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 continues to receive from kids like Munoz. “It reminds us we can all make a real difference,” Yeh says, “one person at a time.”
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