Dolly Parton is a country music icon whose over-the-top flair and ever-chipper attitude have for decades made her Nashville’s darling.
But the 10-time Grammy winner has more going for her than just her image, music or even her own theme park, “Dollywood.”
The singer/songwriter also has become the driving force behind an effort to promote childhood literacy with her Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. The nonprofit, which she began in 1995 as a local benefit in her hometown of Seiver County, Tennessee, now sends free books to thousands of children around the globe every month.
That includes Wyoming, where her Imagination Library is providing free books to 13 of the Cowboy State’s 23 counties. And that’s just a start, said Michelle Anthony, regional director for the Imagination Library.
For those on the receiving end of her literary efforts, Parton is “The Book Lady.”
More Than 6,000 Kids
“Right now in Wyoming, we have 6,105 kids enrolled,” Anthony told Cowboy State Daily. “We have 12 current program partners, and we have three that are launching this year in 2023.”
And the counties already served by the nonprofit say they’re thrilled with the program.
“Families love this program,” said Becky Gregory with the Children’s Learning Center in Sublette County, who said she’s heard nothing but positive feedback from parents who have had their children enrolled in the program since they were born. “It’s awesome.”
Kelly Frink is executive director for United Way in Sweetwater County and oversees Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library for that region. She said her own children participated in the program when they were small.
“I think it’s an amazing program that she started, to get kids reading and excited about it,” she told Cowboy State Daily.
How It Works
The book-gifting program mails free books to registered children every month ages birth through 5, so by the time enrolled children graduate from the Imagination Library program they’ve received 60 books.
More than 2 million free books are gifted each month to children around the world, which breaks down to a book mailed every 1.3 seconds. More than 190 million books have been gifted since the program’s inception.
But Anthony pointed out that Wyoming has very few children enrolled in the program compared to other states, which means the possibility for expansion is enormous.
“Right now in Wyoming, we’re only serving about 2% of our 0-5 population,” she said. “So that is one of our states with incredible growth potential.”
Becoming An Affiliate
Gregory explained that as an affiliate, the Children’s Learning Center has three primary roles: pay partial cost of the books and postage, register children for the program and manage the local database.
The Dollywood Foundation then covers overhead costs and negotiates wholesale pricing for books, which now run about $2.10 per child.
There are nearly 200 children enrolled in the Sublette County program, which has been in operation for six years, whereas the Sweetwater and Fremont programs have 2,416 children enrolled, having built their programs since 2010.
“Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library ships the books,” Frink explained. “And we manage the database, and then they send us an invoice each month for how many books are mailed out.”
Frink said the United Way holds an annual golf tournament fundraiser to support its affiliation with the Imagination Library.
“Our goal is around $70,000 a year just for this program,” she said.
Books For Babes
From “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to “Richard Scarry’s Busy Busy People,” Anthony said children’s books distributed through the Imagination Library are chosen to lay a foundation to build a lifetime love of reading and encourage adults to spend important one-on-one time with their children.
The books are “chosen by a team of people, a panel of early childhood literacy experts,” said Anthony. “And they review hundreds of potential titles.”
Anthony said studies have shown that early childhood exposure to books increases a child’s readiness for school.
“Children that begin reading very, very early in life have a 30% increase in being ready for kindergarten,” said Anthony. “And then even beyond that, (studies show) significantly stronger reading, math and science achievement tests consistently from kindergarten through ninth grade.”
Frink believes the Imagination Library helps remind parents to read to their children, because a new book shows up every month.
“We also email the parents on a regular basis, just to remind them the importance of reading aloud and what those benefits are,” she said.
Frink added that the novelty of receiving their own packages often contributes to the joy children then associate with reading.
“You know, they just get excited to get something in the mail with their name on it,” she said.
Parton explains on her website that the idea for Imagination Library began from a very personal experience – her father was illiterate.
“Before he passed away, my Daddy told me the Imagination Library was probably the most important thing I had ever done,” Parton said. “I can’t tell you how much that meant to me because I created the Imagination Library as a tribute to my Daddy.
“He was the smartest man I have ever known, but I know in my heart his inability to read probably kept him from fulfilling all of his dreams.”
And Anthony’s motivation to take a job with the Imagination Library came from a similar place.
“My grandmother, she’s 86 years old, and she has a third grade education and never learned how to read,” Anthony said. “And going back even further, my ancestors in this country, I’m African American. They weren’t allowed to read. It was illegal to even learn how to read because they were slaves.”
Anthony said that being a part of a mission in which all children get the opportunity to read is very fulfilling.
“All kids, all shapes, all sizes, no matter where they come from, no matter what they look like, are getting the opportunity to read,” she said. “It is everything for me.”