The Colorful Story of How Bill Zimmerman Used Comic Books to Teach Students All Over the World

 A new book has been published titled ”’Late Boomers: Inspiring stories about people who’ve done life-changing things later in life” and which includes a chapter about Zimmerman, creator of MakeBeliefsComix.com, and his efforts in growing this web site.  The book, by Jeri Bernstein, can be purchased at 

VIEW “LATE BLOOMERS” BOOK ON AMAZON

Super Hero.

The Colorful Story of How
Bill Zimmerman Used Comic Books to Teach Students All Over the World.

As a child, Bill Zimmerman was obsessed with comics. He devoured them. ‘Matter of fact, he rarely had a meal without a comic book next to his plate! His favorite day of the week was Sunday, when his father would venture out of their Brooklyn home and return with breakfast and an armful of newspapers. “I would grab the papers from him and pull out the comic sections,” recalls Bill. “I fell in love with the color and the characters. Comic strips allowed me to enter a new world.”

Bill feels that the comics not only taught him how to read, it gave him and enormous dose of creativity and inventiveness. But as big as his imagination grew, he could have never imagined that his early zealous fascination would lead to him, in his retirement, to developing a remarkable website called MakeBeliefsComix, where you can create your own comic strips online. It’s a robust site that teaches reading, new languages, innovation and problem solving through the use of nearly one hundred cartoon characters and settings. The interactive, highly engaging site is translated into over 30 languages and has visitors from every corner of the globe. Funny, how with his beloved “funnies,” Bill achieved his dream of ‘giving back’ and helping others by teaching and hundreds of thousands of students each month for free.

Bill’s comic-fueled imagination has served him well throughout his life and his career. While he toyed with illustration and art classes, he ended up becoming an extraordinary newspaper journalist (“Because I loved newspapers so much…”) and rose to become the editor in chief at American Banker and then Newsday. During his years in the industry, it was a time when newspapers were turning to graphics and color to enhance the news stories. You can imagine, with his visual upbringing and love for color, Bill jumped on the trend immediately. He incorporated brilliant charts and graphs…and even a cartoon or two. “When I started working for Newsday, which was one of the largest tabloids at the time, I had a lot of creative freedom. I introduced a unique feature called the Student Briefing Page, in order to teach young people about current events.

It ran for 13 years and was syndicated all over the country. It was one of the most gratifying projects of my career.” This page was a true one-of-a-kind. It not only used engaging graphics to present the information, it was interactive, prompting the reader to grab a pencil and participate, whether it was writing in the answer to a compelling question or filling in conversation bubbles over the cartoon heads of world leaders. One wonders what possibly compelled Bill to create that?! The page was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Always yearning for creative outlets, Bill decided to run the newspaper by day, and write books at night. Not mysteries or historic novels, but rather books for kids. Books that would teach and support their young lives and encourage their voices. Most importantly and uniquely, books that made the reader a true participant.

To start the process, he collaborated with a graphic artist he had met at the newspaper, a cartoonist named Tom Bloom. “My first book” says Bill, “was called Make Beliefs. A Book for your Imagination. I created the text and then Tom would add an illustration.”

Still in print today, the book is a series of fun and thought-provoking prompts, to be completed by the reader with pencil or crayon. The question-answer format engages the reader and allows them to tap into fresh ideas and new thinking. The reader can also color the drawings, allowing each individual to create a personalized book all their own. With Tom Bloom’s help, Bill quickly finished and self- published three more books and sold them to Bantam. He would go on to write more than two dozen books, all interactive, featuring writing prompts. The books have been featured on the Today Show and PBS. His written work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and in magazines such as Family Circle, Parents, Esquire and Business Week.

In 2004, when Bill Zimmerman left the newspaper world, he walked away from amazing accomplishments and contributions as well as an illustrious 42-year career. But there was no way he was leaving behind his life’s passion: creativity. And his mission to contribute to society and to “do good.” Through his book writing and newspaper experience, he knew the comic book “format” was a great way to connect with children. It was friendly, bite-sized, colorful and fun. “So, I decided to build a free website where students could make their own comic strips and learn reading and writing in the process,” recalls Bill. In 2006, he launched MakeBeliefsComix.com. So far, the site has had 22 million visitors.

Like many of the creations Bill has gifted the world, MakeBeliefsComix.com is interactive and makes it easy to create comic strips, greeting cards, e-books and more. On the site, users can choose from dozens of diverse comic characters: they are of all ages and races. There are characters with disabilities. Some characters are based on humans or animals. Some are just based on Bill’s limitless imagination!

Since its launch, MakeBeliefsComix has had visits from over 200 countries. The text is offered in more than 30 languages. In addition to children, educators have been the site’s biggest fans, using it to as a tool to teach writing, reading and to teach another language. Wanting it to be a useful resource, MakeBeliefsComix offers lesson plans for teachers and even has a special section for teaching special education. “We found a lot of special needs educators find that working with our comic book format is very useful in communicating with autistic children. Some that don’t use their voices much can express things that are troubling them through the use of the characters and settings,” says Bill.

Although the site was conceived to serve children, people of all ages find it useful and fun. It’s a perfect platform for parents to connect with their children and a great vehicle for grandparents to stay in touch with grandkids who may live a distance away. It provides a great way for business people to de-stress from work. Activities and social directors use it for inspiration.

MakeBeliefsComix was an endowment to everyone. But it was also important to Bill. “It was really a gift to myself,” reflects Bill. “I wanted a project that would enhance my life and help people. I hope the website touches people in some way and changes their lives. I will never make a fortune on it, though!” But, MakeBeliefsComix is a truly priceless addition to the world.

These days, aside from managing MakeBeliefsComix, Bill still reads the comics. “I still do it every day. I still love getting lost in the comic world. It’s probably the finest 5-10 minutes of my day. Comics are just so beautiful, and I like the fantasy. Everything is possible.”

Well, Bill made it possible. Thanks to his vision, his passion, his imagination and his love of comics, people everywhere are taught and touched by his amazing MakeBeliefsComix.com. Bill is a wonderful, inspiring example how you’re never too old to make a meaningful impact. He ‘makes belief-ers’ of us all.

Was there anything creating MakeBeliefsComix.com that surprised you?

“I didn’t realize the internet could be so exciting. It gives you so much power to reach people and help people. Some of my books were successful and that is very gratifying. But with the website, I can reach hundreds of thousands of people each month.”

Do you think you could have created MakeBeliefsComix.com earlier in your life?

“No. During my years as a newspaper editor, I had thoughts of it. But there were too many deadlines and I was too busy. I needed the free time of my retirement to get my ideas together. I am really grateful for these years when I can continue to learn and explore things.

What’s in the future of MakeBeliefsComix.com? And you!?

“I will keep trying to enhance the site. When we started, we had 8 characters. Now we have 60-70 characters! We keep adding characters and new features. As for me, well I’m always happiest when I’m creating something. So now, I’m working on a new book with Tom Bloom, the illustrator. This book will encourage readers to have conversations with their pets!” That sounds like classic Zimmerman imagination.

 

If “The Creation of MakeBeliefsComix.com” becomes a Hollywood movie, who would play you?

When answering this, as always, Bill thinks outside the box. “I think the cartoon that represents me on the website would play me. I mean, he IS me.” If the movie ever happens, one thing we will all know for certain: Bill Zimmerman is a real character.

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