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Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library: Turning Illiteracy into a Gift of Reading for Children Everywhere

Dolly Parton Turns Her Father's Struggle into a Gift of Reading for Children Everywhere
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Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library inspires a love for reading by giving books for free to children from birth to age five. As a tribute to her father, Robert Lee Parton, the program is co-funded by Dolly Parton and local community partners in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the Republic of Ireland. 

As a philanthropist, Dolly has touched lives, leading a lasting impact on the times today. Growing up poor in East Tennessee, she had a tough childhood. Being the fourth among the 12 children in her family, she became determined to support youth across Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia through programs that provide access to education. 

In 1988, she founded The Dollywood Foundation, a non-profit organization that offers scholarships to high school students. She didn’t stop there. In 1995, she set up her literacy program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which mails free children’s books. 

What is Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library? 

Simply put, the Imagination Library is a program for book donations. Dolly Parton’s children’s books are mailed to kids aged 0 to 5 for free, monthly without cost. There are also no income or eligibility requirements, so the program has grown exponentially, giving about 200 million books since its first year in 1995. 

In reality, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library mails books to more than 2.2 million kids monthly. All she wanted was to help kids in the town where she was born – Sevier County, Tennessee. Her vision was to foster a love for reading among the county’s preschool-aged children and their families through selected books. 

Once a child is signed up through a sponsoring program in the area, they will have 60 books when they age out at five. Children of the same age receive the same books every year, and these books come with discussion guides for caregivers and parents to get involved. 

The first book a child will receive is “The Little Engine That Could,” which comes with a personal note from Dolly about why it’s important to read. After their first year, each child gets a book selected based on age. The last book they receive will be “Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come,” a send-off for kids aging out of the program and integrated into school. The Imagination Library includes bilingual titles, as well as books in Braille.

Dolly Parton’s Motivation: Her Father’s Struggle with Illiteracy 

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is inspired and motivated by Robert Lee Parton, her father. Robert couldn’t read or write. He started working at a very young age and did not go to school. It’s this particular story that prompted Dolly to do something for the children of East Tennessee. 

RELATED: Meet Avie Lee Parton, Dolly Parton’s Super Mom Behind Stardom

Dolly saw the effect of illiteracy on her father. She witnessed how being unable to read or write prevented him from fulfilling his dreams. That day she realized this, she knew she wanted to inspire kids to love reading. She saw the benefits of early childhood literacy and didn’t want children to face similar challenges. So, this became her mission. “I just think that it’s important for kids to be encouraged to read, to dream, and to plan for a better life and better future,” Dolly said. 

By doing exactly this, she honors her father. Dolly said her father told her that the Imagination Library was probably the most important thing she had ever done before he passed away. “I can’t tell you how much that meant to me because I created the Imagination Library as a tribute to my Daddy,” she said. 

Is Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library free?

The cost-free nature of the program is possible because the cost of books and mailing comes from funds shared by Dolly Parton and local communities. On the one hand, Dolly Parton and Dollywood Foundation cover the overhead and administration costs. Local communities or agencies, on the other hand, cover funding for the books and postage. 

To be a partner or donor, called an affiliate, should be established in a locality. This affiliate organization makes the program accessible to children from 0-5 in local areas. The community partners pay the wholesale cost of books and mailing for the children selected in the coverage. 

Has Dolly Parton written children’s books? 

One of the books Dolly Parton gives is “Coat of Many Colors,” a book she wrote herself. This book brings to life one of Dolly’s songs based on a vivid childhood memory. Tennessee is getting cold, and a little girl’s mama doesn’t have money to buy her a new coat, so she sews one out of rags. It is worn proudly by the little girl to school, and when the other children laugh, she gives them a quick lesson in what wealth is.

Every year, the Blue Ribbon Book Selection Committee curates Dolly Parton’s children’s books. The committee is comprised of early childhood literacy experts who review potential titles for the library. Penguin Random House publishes all books distributed through the Imagination Library. 

How many books did Dolly Parton donate?

In August 2019, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library was able to mail over 125 million books. Four years later, in 2023, 2.4 million high-quality, age-appropriate, free books were mailed to children worldwide. This milestone was celebrated with a special bookmark delivery. Portland, Victoria, Australia; South Lanarkshire, Scotland; Dublin, Republic of Ireland; Ontario, Canada; Beaver, Oklahoma; Clay, New York; and Sterling, Illinois are all home to these bookmarks. 

In an interview with New York Public Radio, Dolly said she’s going for a billion books in her lifetime. “I’m a big dreamer, you know,” Dolly stated.

What are the benefits of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library?

There are several benefits of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. The first is increased access to age-appropriate, high-quality books for children. Because the children who receive the books are from all corners of the world, the reading list of families becomes carefully curated books that pass the screening process of the Blue Ribbon Book Selection Committee. 

Access to books fosters the love for reading and learning from an early age. Exposure to early literacy contributes to a child’s academic success. Finally, having books at home that children want to read strengthens family bonds through shared reading experiences. 

Is Dolly Parton educated? 

Dolly Parton’s education was limited. She graduated from Sevier County High School in 1964. Right after, she moved to Nashville and pursued music full-time. In 2009, the University of Tennessee (UT) awarded the country music star an honorary doctorate in Humane and Musical Letters. This is the second honorary doctorate that UT has awarded in the program. 

Parton’s upbringing influenced her character and her work in many ways. Growing up poor, her childhood is a story about resilience and determination. Dolly’s childhood was a mix of opportunities and challenges. Despite challenges, she didn’t give up on her dreams and continued to persevere. The success she enjoys now is because of the support of her family. 

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library Strives to Make a Difference

The Imagination Library was born out of the advocacy for the love of reading that is inspired by a father’s desire for a better life. Since Dolly Parton saw the effects of illiteracy in her family’s life, she made it a vow to provide a way for children to access good reading materials. Her work at the Library is meaningful since it touches children and families alike towards embracing literacy. 

Now that you’ve gotten to know Dolly Parton a bit more, it is essential to encourage others to support children’s literacy initiatives in their respective communities. As an entertainer and champion of education,  Dolly Parton’s legacy in music and education continues to ring through.

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