Teachers Undoing Racism Now (TURN) is a group of Montclair teachers working to promote equity and diversity in the schools, including adding new books to the schools’ libraries.

This fall, the group assembled a set of 34 children’s books featuring black or African American main characters, and donated a set to each of Montclair’s seven elementary schools.

Rodney Jackson, a history teacher at Renaissance and one of the teachers who spearheaded the book collection project, said getting more books by and about people of color into the schools has been one of TURN’s missions since the group was founded in 2016.

The book list assembled for the elementary schools are a mix of picture books and chapter books and include titles such as “Amazing Grace,” by Mary Hoffman; “Do Not Bring Your Dragon to the Library,” by Julie Gassman; the EllRay Jakes series by Sally Warner; and the Jaden Toussaint series by Marti Dumas.

The Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence contributed a $700 grant toward the project, an amount that was matched by the Montclair BOE and district administration.

TURN reached out to Watchung Booksellers for help on putting the list together.

“They asked for suggestions, which we were happy to do,” said store owner Margot Sage-EL. “There are so many wonderful books out there with African American main characters and they don't always seem to find the right place - in a school.”

TURN also asked teachers for feedback on what books their students liked.

One of the requests from teachers was that the books feature children doing everyday things, rather than concentrating solely on historical figures and events, such as slavery and the civil rights movement.

Though the number of children’s books featuring black, Latino, Asian and Native American characters have become more prominent in recent years, along with books written by authors from those groups, the vast majority of children’s books still tend to feature white characters.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center publishes an annual report on the number of children’s titles that are written by, or about, people of color in a given year.

In 2017, the center received copies of 3,700 children’s books from publishers. 9 percent featured black or African American main characters, 1.9 percent featured Native American main characters, 8.37 percent featured Asian or Pacific Islander main characters, and 5.8 percent featured Latinx main characters. The remaining 69 percent of books featured either white main characters or dealt with subjects such as animals or machines.

Organizations such as the group We Need Diverse Books have published lists of books featuring diverse characters, and recommendations for teachers and parents on where to find them.

TURN placed an order for the books during the summer. The books arrived in October, and were delivered to the schools by the first week of November, Jackson said. “Each time [we dropped the books off] it was a warm reception.”

School officials decided whether to put the books in their libraries or distribute them among the classrooms.

It’s a little early yet to see what the feedback has been like on the books. However, Jackson said some of the schools have started doubling up by purchasing additional copies of the books in the sets.

TURN is hoping to do a similar project, assembling book lists for middle school and high school students. In the future, TURN hopes to have a book list posted on the district website for students, staff and families to see.