Librarian turns page in her autobiography

Even after 30 years of service, Sequim Middle School librarian Jo Chinn can't get enough of children's literature.

Every summer vacation, Chinn fills a suitcase with books from the school library to catch up on what her students are reading.

"I don't even know what adult books I like," Chinn joked.

She won't be filling any suitcases with schoolbooks this summer because in June she will retire.

Chinn began her teaching career 32 years ago in Raymond, where she taught kindergarten-sixth grade. A year later, she moved to Port Townsend and substituted a year before being hired in 1979 at Sequim Middle School.

She foreshadowed becoming a librarian at age 8. She catalogued all her parents' bookshelves and made them check out their own books.

Chinn, looking back at her career, says libraries have changed dramatically in the past three decades. Technology is the biggest change for her in the library. Chinn said she was never a big fan of the card catalog system.

"I dumped it before I switched on the first computer," she said.

The process for doing school papers and projects has changed drastically in her opinion, too.

"It's not a big scavenger hunt anymore. We used to do 'reports,' but now it's 'research,'" Chinn said.

She feels technology is a mixed-blessing for school libraries.

"Technology is a financial drain on school districts," Chinn said.

"The last 10 years, we've struggled with deciding which programs to choose because of budget."

Chinn said many people think the Internet is the best resource for children today but, "it isn't all designed or appropriate for kids."

Stocking bookshelves with relevant books is another challenge for Chinn.

"Sixth grade studies ancient civilizations, seventh grade does medieval and Washington state history, and eighth grade covers U.S. history," she said.

"How can I properly stock books for all that?"

Chinn has tried to defy stereotypes of school libraries existing solely for language arts programs, too.

"We touch all subjects and curriculums here," she said.

"Our biggest user is the social studies classes and then language arts."

The role of the library and a librarian can be different for every student, Chinn said.

"Never give up on anyone. We see kids at their toughest times in life. They may be tough to me, but they still deserve my attention," Chinn said.

A sixth-grade student of hers once was opposed to reading but by the end of seventh grade he was reading the "Cirque du Freak" books by Darren Shan. Chinn said he began talking to other students about them and in eighth grade recommended and discussed them, and attended book clubs with other students.

He visited Chinn while attending high school, bringing a friend, and opened his backpack to show her books he had checked out from the public library and bought at a bookstore.

"Reading becomes a safe haven for some students and in many ways can change their lives," Chinn said.

She feels adults can underestimate the intellect of middle school students.

"Once during lunchtime, a seventh-grader griped to me that somebody had stolen the political cartoon from the daily newspaper," she said.

Chinn said her students are polite, which many adults don't believe.

"I think people will be surprised how many kids say 'thank you,'" she said.

"About 90 percent do."

After retirement, Chinn said she will miss talking with students most of all.

"You have some great conversations with kids. A lot of them are deep thinkers," Chinn said.

A few of her favorite school memories are helping students raise money for a student in need of a bone marrow transplant and traveling to the National History Day competition in Washington, D.C.

Once, Chinn wanted to give prizes to top researchers in Diane Flynn's eighth-grade class. She ended up giving them a jar of mayonnaise and a lemon.

"We do anything to motivate students at middle school," Chinn said.

When recommending books for girls, Chinn says "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte is a top choice. For boys, Chinn has read every sports book in the library to better recommend titles.

She never has a hard time recommending books for students, but choosing a personal favorite is a different matter.

"Picking a favorite book is like picking a favorite student," Chinn said.

She narrowed her list to "One Fat Summer" by Robert Lipsyte, "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck, "Crispin" by Avi, "Redwall" by Brian Jacques, "Walk Two Moons" by Sharon Creech and anything written by Richard Peck.

Chinn's least favorite books for students are the "Sweet Valley High" series from the 1980s, the "Choose Your Adventure" series and most books by Gary Paulsen.

After she retires, Chinn and her husband, Steve, will go to New Zealand for a few months to visit family.

She is uncertain if she and her family will stay in Sequim following retirement.

However, she is positive she'll keep reading.

Matthew Nash can be reached at mnash@sequim

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