When most people think of Dolly Parton, they think of a country music superstar and sometime actress; rarely do they mention her in the same breath as education and the push for early literacy. However, through her Imagination Library program, Parton has literally changed millions of U.S. children’s lives by giving them the gift of reading. Every month, her non-profit program mails a free book to over one million children — from the time they are first born until they turn five years old.
Parton’s inspiration for the Imagination Library was personal. Her father, Robert Lee Parton, started working when he was very young to help support his family, and he never learned to read.
“My dad didn’t get the chance to go to school,” Parton said, “and Daddy couldn’t read and write, and that was kind of crippling to him. [He] thought it was just something he couldn’t learn after he was grown. And that was just kind of embarrassing to him. But I didn’t want Daddy to feel embarrassed.”
Parton decided to give the children of Sevier County, where she grew up, something her father never had: early access to books. In 1995, she founded the Imagination Library, and she made sure to involve her father in the process. Before he died in 2000, he saw the program take off. “He got to hear the kids call me ‘The Book Lady,’ Parton continued. “He got a big kick out of that. But he took great pride and felt like he’d helped do something special.”
The year 2000 was also when the Imagination Library grew from its modest Tennessee roots to reach children in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and today it has grown into Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Local partners in a community — such as a non-profit organization, a state agency, or a public library — teams up with the Imagination Library, paying about $25 per child per year to cover the cost of the books and the shipping.. Any child from birth to age five — before they head off to kindergarten — is eligible.
A panel of early childhood literacy experts selects age-appropriate books organized around important themes and concepts; the selection also includes two bilingual Spanish-English books per year. The choices range from time-tested titles like The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter to contemporary classics such as Newbery Medal winner Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena. The Imagination Library sources and ships the books, addressed directly to the child, once a month for the duration of the program. In addition, the books come with suggestions for parents on how to engage with the words beyond the page, with questions to ask and activities to do. This helps make reading time both educational and fun for the children and their parents.
Cities and school systems have also piggybacked other important information to the recipient families through Imagination Library. For example, Cincinnati, Ohio had struggled with more children than expected showing up on the first day of school. That’s because many families didn’t know they had to register their children in advance. In addition, some children weren’t immunized properly or were generally unprepared for the classroom. Now, the city reaches out to parents of four-year-olds in the program who, along with their books, receive reminders about registration and health requirements, and what, specifically, they need to do to address them. Preliminary, though unofficial, results are promising.
The science backs up the importance of early literacy. The human brain develops rapidly during the first few years of life, and studies have found that reading out loud to a child not only promotes literacy and a love of reading, but also has lasting cognitive and educational benefits. You can read more about the importance of early literacy here.
Parton also feels that early literacy helps children build knowledge and expand their horizons. “If you can read, even if you can’t afford education, you can go on and learn about anything you want to know. There’s a book on everything. So 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.”
As of March 2018, the Imagination Library has given away 100 million books to eager children around the world.