Review: Zen Pencils: Cartoon Quotes from Inspirational Folks

zenpencils cover

I first delved into Zen Pencils, the home of Gavin Aung Than’s inspirational comic strips when I was teaching abroad. Through Than’s stories the wisdom of hundreds (there are 210 strips available on his site) was available to me in one place in a format that I could quickly enjoy and understand.

I was lucky enough to receive copies of Zen Pencils: Cartoon Quotes from Inspirational Folks and Zen Pencils-Volume Two: Dream the Impossible Dream as a birthday gift from my brother. Reading from a screen vs. a book are very different, with paper being my favourite by far. Now I can reach up to my shelf for a quick inspiration fix whenever I like or share my favourite passages with my friends and colleagues in person instead of through a screen.

Gavin Aung Than had been working as a graphic designer, idling his time reading profiles of his heroes on Wikipedia until using his passion for cartooning to break free of his job and create stories from his favourite quotes. A lot of the quotes he has chosen to illustrate in this first volume centre around the theme of finding your passion and making it possible to do it full time; What if money was no object by Alan Watts, Ask Yourself by Howard Thurman, The Fire Within by Sophie Scholl.


In Aung Than’s own words “it’s easy to get tired of the ‘anything is possible’ and ‘follow your passion’ mantras that saturate today’s social media world” but not all of these stories are sunshine and roses. Some of the strips are loud and angry, the illustrated version of What Teachers Make by Taylor Mali and Who’s the Crazier Man by Henry Rollins meant to wake up the audience from living life passively.

This first volume holds some of my favourite strips from the site. Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman had each incredible tragedy (‘your leg get’s eaten by a crocodile? Make art!) make me laugh out loud. I read aloud the Stephen Fry quote Ultimate Self-Help Book with my boyfriend as it is something we both admire Fry for saying. Something I love about Than’s strips is the recurring characters. Ultimate Self-Help Book is the first of a few strips with the fat middle aged man as he strives to become happier is revisited again as he plucks up the courage to run a marathon (see 160. Edgar Albert Guest It Couldn’t Be Done).

make good art zenpencils
Make Good Art based on a quote by Neil Gaiman – art Gavin Aung Than

My two absolute favourite strips are placed together in the book. On Kindness by Roger Ebert and Make Gifts for People by John Green. Both of these strips have influenced how I interact with people and how I go about my work and life.

This book would be a great gift to anyone teenage or older (although be careful, there is strong language in places) or a treat for yourself as a place to dip in to for inspiration or a kick to become stronger and live a bigger life. There’s even a pull-out poster included (although I myself have my eye on some of the prints in the Zen Pencils Store) I know that there are a lot of poems, quotes and people in this book that will stay with me for a long time.


All quotes and images are copyright to their respective owners, Gavin Aung Than and Andrew McMeel Publishing. Their inclusion is for the purposes of review.


Author: better_mel

Hello there and welcome to my blog. Here I write about life, self development, motivation, self discipline, learning, languages and BJJ. I hope you find something that you like. Have a great day!

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