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Lockport comic book store ‘magical’ for kids struggling to read

A dozen local students who struggled as readers have become soon-to-be-published comic book writers. And they have done it in about three months.

Lockport comic book store Pulp 716 has been running the POWer Reader Group since March. The program matches 12 kids with a private literacy tutor who teaches them how to improve their reading skills using comics.

The group got a surprise over the weekend when the store’s owner announced that the kids would conceptualize and write a comic book of their own. Co-owner Jay Berent will use his connections in the industry to make it happen, and pay for the publishing himself.

“I thought it was really cool,” Zachary Clarke, 9, said Saturday. “I’m really excited.”

Zachary’s mom, Heidi, describes him as a reluctant reader. He would rather play with his Legos or a video game than read a book, she says, but when it comes to comics, he’ll dive right in and read them cover to cover.

Even before he learned that the store would be publishing a comic, he had started developing a character of his own – Onyx Haze, who is clad in black and armed with swords.

Such stories are what inspired Pulp 716 owners Jay and Amy Berent to start the reading program.

As a kid, Jay Berent’s teacher told his parents that he had problems with reading comprehension.

“It turns out the problem I had was being absolutely bored with the Dick and Jane books they were peddling to us,” he said.

Jay Berent’s father gave him a comic book, which he says changed his life. The son went from being a kid with a reading problem to an honors graduate. Now, he describes watching the kids in the group – who range in age from 7 to 13 and treat one another equally– as mesmerizing.

“It’s magical,” he said.

The group’s teacher, Brooks Price, started off with the basics, showing kids how to read panels from left to right and to read the dialogue bubbles from top to bottom. Next he taught them how to use the pictures for clues and context. He showed them how to read the characters’ facial expressions and body language.

Each week, the kids talk about what they have read since the last session and describe their favorite characters. At the end of each lesson, students use the comic’s foreshadowing to guess what might happen in the next installment. Pulp 716 closes the store during the class so there are no distractions.

As schools cut arts funding, Price said, he hopes that more stores and libraries will offer similar programs. The comic books, which are provided free by Pulp 716, are a unique teaching tool, Price said. The lessons help improve reading, let kids practice abstract thinking and help them build emotional intelligence and social skills.

But there’s an even bigger payoff.

“Just seeing these kids learn to love reading and seeing the smiles on their faces – that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

To create their book, students will be paired with mentors from the local comic community – artists and writers who have published work of their own. Pulp 716 will publish the comic and have it printed off-site. It will be available in the store this fall.

The next POWer Reader session will begin June 4. Those interested in participating can sign up at the store, 45 East Ave., Lockport.