Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library Has Given Away 186 Million Free Books to Kids, Boosting Literacy Worldwide

Dol­ly Par­ton cre­at­ed her Imag­i­na­tion Library, a non-prof­it which gives books to mil­lions of chil­dren every month, with her father, Robert Lee Par­ton, in mind.

“I always thought that if Dad­dy had an edu­ca­tion, there’s no telling what he could have been,” she mused in her 2020 book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics:

Because he knew how to barter, he knew how to bar­gain. He knew how to make every­thing work, and he knew how to count mon­ey. He knew exact­ly what every­thing was worth, how much he was going to make from that tobac­co crop, what he could trade, and how he could make it all work

Despite his busi­ness acu­men, Parton’s father nev­er learned to read or write, a source of shame.

Par­ton explains how there was a time when school­ing was nev­er con­sid­ered a giv­en for chil­dren in the moun­tains of East Ten­nessee, par­tic­u­lar­ly for those like her father, who came from a fam­i­ly of 15:

Kids had to go to work in the fields to help feed the fam­i­ly. Because of the weath­er and because of con­di­tions, a lot of kids couldn’t go to school.

I told him, “Dad­dy, there are prob­a­bly mil­lions of peo­ple in this world who don’t know how to read and write, who didn’t get the oppor­tu­ni­ty. Don’t be ashamed of that. Let’s do some­thing spe­cial.”

Par­ton is con­vinced that her father, whose pride in her musi­cal accom­plish­ments was so great he drove over with a buck­et of soapy water to clean the bronze stat­ue her home­town erect­ed in her hon­or, was proud­er still of a nick­name bestowed on her by the Imag­i­na­tion Library’s child ben­e­fi­cia­ries — the Book Lady.

Togeth­er with the com­mu­ni­ty part­ners who secure fund­ing for postage and non-admin­is­tra­tive costs, the Book Lady has giv­en away some 186,680,000 books since the project launched in 1995.

Orig­i­nal­ly lim­it­ed to chil­dren resid­ing in Sevi­er Coun­ty, Ten­nessee, the pro­gram has expand­ed to serve over 2,000,000 kids in the US, UK, Aus­tralia, Cana­da and the Repub­lic of Ire­land.

Par­tic­i­pa­tion can start well before a child is old enough to attempt their ABCs. Par­ents and guardians are encour­aged to enroll them at birth.

The Imag­i­na­tion Library’s lit­tlest par­tic­i­pants’ love of books is fos­tered with col­or­ful illus­tra­tions and sim­ple texts, often rhymes hav­ing to do with ani­mals or bed­time.

By the time a read­er hits their final year of the pro­gram at age 5, the focus will have shift­ed to school readi­ness, with sub­jects includ­ing sci­ence, folk­tales, and poet­ry.

The books — all Pen­guin Ran­dom House titles — are cho­sen by a pan­el of ear­ly child­hood lit­er­a­cy experts. 

This year’s selec­tion includes such old favorites as The Tale of Peter Rab­bit, Good Night, Goril­la, and The Snowy Day, as well as Parton’s own Coat of Many Col­ors, based on the song in which she famous­ly paid trib­ute to her moth­er’s ten­der resource­ful­ness:

Back through the years

I go won­derin’ once again

Back to the sea­sons of my youth

I recall a box of rags that some­one gave us

And how my mom­ma put the rags to use

There were rags of many col­ors

Every piece was small

And I did­n’t have a coat

And it was way down in the fall

Mom­ma sewed the rags togeth­er

Sewin’ every piece with love

She made my coat of many col­ors

That I was so proud of

The Imag­i­na­tion Library is clear­ly a boon to chil­dren liv­ing, as Par­ton once did, in pover­ty, but par­tic­i­pa­tion is open to any­one under age 5 liv­ing in an area served by an Imag­i­na­tion Library affil­i­ate.

Pro­mot­ing ear­ly engage­ment with books in such a sig­nif­i­cant way has also helped Par­ton to reduce some of the stig­ma sur­round­ing illit­er­a­cy:

You don’t real­ly real­ize how many peo­ple can’t read and write. Me telling the sto­ry about my dad­dy instilled some pride in peo­ple who felt like they had to keep it hid­den like a secret. I get so many let­ters from peo­ple say­ing, “I would nev­er had admit­ted it’ or “I was always ashamed.”

Learn more about Dol­ly Parton’s Imag­i­na­tion Library, which wel­comes dona­tions and inquiries from those who would like to start an affil­i­ate pro­gram in their area, here.

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (5)
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  • Morgan Kopp says:

    Would love to receive books for my child each month! All three of them love to read!

  • Melody says:

    My grand­son Con­nor is just learn­ing to read and would enjoy a book

  • Dorcas Amalu says:

    Good Evening my name is Dor­cas Amalu I am from Nige­ria, I have two kids a Boy and Girl. Please is the book avail­able to oth­er coun­tries like Nige­ria. I will love to have the books for my 4 years old boy.thanks

  • Sheila Davis says:

    I have writ­ten a chil­dren book called Moody and Toody Adven­tures. This book is based on the love and com­pas­sion of a young Black man and lit­tle white girl who had no father fig­ure in her life. He showed her love comes from GOD in alot of dif­fer­ent ways. It’s showed her that every­one looks dif­fer­ent we are all the same, just in dif­fer­ent ways we do things.It only took this young man short time to real­ize this lit­tle girl had a hear­ing dis­abil­i­ty from learn.From her fail­ing kinder­garten to mak­ing all most per­fect grades after her surgery. My Dream and hope is to get Moody and Toody Adven­tures Books into every school. So the chil­dren can see they are just as good and smart and can do any­thing through GOD. Cause we all are loved through GOD.If one child is helped by my book it was well worth it. Thanks and GOD BLESS

  • EMS Closet says:

    We are a non­prof­it that pro­vides cloth­ing, shoes, books and toi­letries for chil­dren liv­ing in pover­ty. Do you ever give details of books to non­prof­its? We serve stu­dents K‑12 in two school dis­tricts. The two dis­tricts have approx­i­mate­ly 30,000 chil­dren liv­ing in pover­ty. We would love to hear from you. Thanks for all you do.

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