By Paul Wisenthal in AARP Bulletin
As a child, Bill Zimmerman relished the armload of Sunday newspapers packed with colorful comic sections that his father would bring home. “To me the comics were paradise,” he says. “This is how I learned to read and write.”
That love of the funny papers grew to be a passion for Zimmerman.So much so that he is now helping the young and old connect, one comic at a time.
Zimmerman, 68, is creator of MakeBeliefsComix.com, a website that lets visitors write and illustrate their own comic strips and e-mail them to family and friends. Google’s Literacy Project, UNESCO and the International Reading Association have named the site as one of the most innovative for making reading and writing fun. It’s available in seven languages, and is used by educators and parents of autistic children as teaching aids. Grandparents are also using it to communicate with their grandchildren—and Zimmerman uses the site to keep in touch with his friends.
Even after growing up and becoming an editor at the American Banker, New York Times, and then New York’s Newsday, Zimmerman never gave up on comics. “Whenever I had the chance, I worked with cartoonists,” says the former newspaperman, who also created a series of comic books at Newsday to teach history and current events to youngsters.
In 2006, Zimmerman created and built MakeBeliefsComix.Com with his savings as a retirement gift to himself. “I wanted to give students a choice of whimsical animal and human characters with different emotions,” he says. “It was a way for them to tap into their creativity to create and tell their own graphic stories.” At the same time, he says, it could help “bring families closer together.”
Zimmerman might be on to something. Among the site’s more than 95,000 visitors each month is Denise Levy, 63, of San Diego, mother of four and grandmother of eight. Levy discovered MakeBeliefsComix last year and now uses it to keep in contact with her family.
“I spend at least two hours a week writing stories about personal things going on in my life using the website’s comic characters and sending them to my family,” says Levy. “It helps me to stay in close contact with family members in ways I never would have dreamed of.”
LeAnne Cantrell of Mandeville, La., discovered Zimmerman’s site through the Pervasive Developmental Disorders Parents Forum, a 25,000-member organization devoted to families who have children living with autism. MakeBeliefsComix offers 15 animated characters with different moods, from happy and sad to angry and worried. By writing words in the thought balloons above the characters’ heads and giving them different facial expressions that show various moods, Cantrell made major headway with her 8-year-old autistic son, Cole.
“I sat with Cole for several months in front of the computer showing him how the words angry, sad and worried matched the [characters’] facial expressions,” she says. “Today, Cole can express his feelings verbally without acting out. This is a huge breakthrough to have him talk about what he and others see and feel.”
The website also has attracted educators like Tamara Kirson, who teaches English to immigrants at City College of New York. She says adding playfulness to learning a language draws her mature students to the site. “From lawyers to parking attendants, many have found that Bill’s magical, humorous figures help them improve their English and bond closer with other family members.”
Indeed, being able to help so many people learn and communicate through comics has been gratifying for Zimmerman. “This has been one of the most exciting and productive periods of my life,” he says.
Paul Wisenthal is a writer in New York.