BY SIDNEY BOKER ’21
Country singer Dolly Parton’s nonprofit organization, the Imagination Library, reached a significant milestone on Feb. 27. The nonprofit donated their 100 millionth book for early childhood literacy. Parton told ABC News that she “take[s] a lot of pride in this day. Not only for myself but also for my dad and all the little kids out there that are benefitting.” She personally delivered her book, “Coat of Many Colors,” to the Library of Congress where she read it aloud to a group of children. The reading was live-streamed to libraries across America, many of which work closely with the organization to distribute books to children.
The inspiration behind the organization came from Parton’s father who was illiterate. Robert Lee Parton could not attend school because he had to work to support his family, and never learned to read or write later in life. As a tribute to him, Parton started the Imagination Library in 1995 in her home in Tennessee.
Parton’s exposure to books began with her mother reading the Bible, the only book in her house, to her and her 11 siblings. Her love of reading continued from there. Parton wanted to instill this love in others by providing early access to books. According to ABC News, Parton said of the recent book reading, “I felt really proud that I could honor momma and daddy.”
Speaking on the Imagination Library’s reach, Parton told NPR “we never thought it would be this big.” She expected the nonprofit to remain local, expanding into nearby counties at most. Yet over two decades of operation, Parton said the organization “took wings of its own.” According to the Imagination Library website, the organization now benefits children in all 50 states as well as throughout Canada, Australia and the U.K. These efforts to promote literacy have been acknowledged with various awards, including the Best Practices award from the Library of Congress and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
The program works with local partners, like other nonprofits, state agencies and libraries including Alaska Best Beginnings, the D.C. public library and the Library of Congress. These partners help cover shipping and book costs to send millions of children, ages one to five, one book monthly. Any parent, no matter their income, can sign their children up for the free subscription. The Imagination Library’s panel of qualified educators and specialists, known as the Blue Ribbon Selection Committee, carefully chooses books that are appropriate for participating children’s developmental stages.
Some examples include Jennifer Hanson Rolli’s “Just One More” about a little girl who can’t get enough of anything, and “I Am a Rainbow” by Dolly Parton, which teaches children to talk about emotions through colors. Each book has the child’s name on it and includes prompts to help parents and children interact with the texts. Natasha Price, a mother signed up with the program, told NPR that the monthly books became “a really wonderful custom in our family.” Price also said that she sees “a direct correlation between reading to [her son] every day and his reading comprehension skills.”
Parton believes that once you “teach children to read, they can dream and if you dream you can be successful,” according to ABC News. However, early access to books fosters much more than dreams. Professor Sarah Frenette, director of Early Childhood and Elementary Licensure Programs at Mount Holyoke College, said that “programs like Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library enhance the development of oral language, concepts about print and other important pre-reading competencies by providing access to a variety of high-quality books and suggestions for how to share those texts with young people.” Frenette also emphasized that “the benefits of wide and frequent reading and conversation about books extend well beyond those moments with the text, [and with it] comes. . . enjoyable early experiences with books [which] puts children on the path to literacy.”
The Imagination Library, despite modest beginnings, has touched the lives of millions of children all over the world. “What [Parton] did was so simple, giving books to children, and yet it has had such a massive impact,” said Professor Jennifer Matos, visiting lecturer in psychology and education at Mount Holyoke College and Dolly Parton fan. “We can all do something, we can all give of our talents and gifts and make that world of difference for someone else. I think this is especially important for Mount Holyoke students who are taught to take on the world.”
The organization is making a difference in the lives of ordinary families and on Dolly Parton’s legacy. She is becoming known by more and more people as “the Book Lady” for her philanthropy. Emily Carle ’21 said this transformation is “very powerful,” noting how Parton “has always donated to charitable causes and the Imagination Library. She’s a great inspiration.”