The Dolly Parton Effect: Spreading the Love of Literacy

Dolly Parton at the Library of Congress © Courtesy of The Dollywood Foundation

By Raye Mocioiu

Imagine a world where every child, regardless of background, is surrounded by books, stories and a love of reading. This is the world that Dolly Parton, beloved country music legend and philanthropist, is working to build. Every 1.3 seconds, a book from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is mailed out to a child in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, or the Republic of Ireland. Over two million free books are gifted each month to children worldwide, with one in 10 children in the USA under the age of five enrolled in the program, receiving a book from the Imagination Library every month. In Canada alone, over 44,000 books are sent out monthly. That’s a lot of reading!

“I created my Imagination Library to honour my Dad,” said Parton, the founder and namesake of the program. “He was a smart man, but he never had the opportunity to get an education and to learn to read and write. Even as a little girl, I saw how that held him back.”

The Imagination Library, launched in 1995, is the flagship program of The Dollywood Foundation (DWF), founded by Parton in 1988 to inspire children in her home county to achieve educational success and decrease high school dropout rates. In starting the Imagination Library, Parton’s vision was to foster a love of reading among her county’s preschool children and their families by giving them the gift of a specially selected, age-appropriate book each month. Over the years, the program expanded beyond her county—even crossing the borders of Parton’s home country. Today, the program spans five countries, sparking a love of literacy in children all across the globe.

“I created the Imagination Library to help inspire a love of books and reading early in a child’s life because if you can read, you can teach yourself if you have to,” she said.

dolly parton
Photo © Courtesy of the Dollywood Foundation

A Rags-to-Rhinestones Story

A country music icon and philanthropist, Parton’s life has inspired many. Born the fourth child of 12, Parton was raised in the town of Locust Ridge, Tennessee, and recalls a childhood filled with music and love, even though money was often scarce. Reading, too, was an integral part of Parton’s early life, regardless of a lack of books to read.

“When we were little, Mama always read us stories from the Bible,” Parton recalled. “We were very poor, and it was the only book we had, but I loved hearing all those stories.”

With the Imagination Library, Parton aims to inspire a love of books and reading in children of all backgrounds, regardless of their family’s income—something she wishes she had had access to as a child.

“We would receive food and cloth scraps, which Mama made clothes from. I remember knowing we were receiving things because we were poor,” continued Parton. “I’m sure I would have loved receiving books as a little girl, but I don’t want any child to think they receive books from the Imagination Library because they are poor. Reading and books are a gift that all children should receive, and it’s something that they can share even though they may have had very different experiences in life.”

Parton’s own life experiences changed when her music career took off. She began performing as a child, singing on local radio and television programs in East Tennessee. By the time she was 13, she had recorded her first single and even appeared at the Grand Ole Opry, a milestone achievement early in her career. Her talent and natural charisma found a home in songwriting after graduating high school, and Parton’s pen brought several chart-topping hits to life. Her first country album, Hello, I’m Dolly, cracked the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and launched her career as a hit-making singer-songwriter.

In the years that followed, Parton climbed the charts and worked to become a household name, writing songs that are beloved to this day, like “I Will Always Love You,” “9 to 5,” and “Jolene.” Now the most honoured and revered female country singer-songwriter of all time, Parton continues to use her success as a platform for positivity, empowerment, and giving.

Photo © Courtesy of the Dollywood Foundation

Love for Literacy

Despite her father’s illiteracy, Parton has always said he was one of the smartest people she’d ever known. Like many children raised by farmers, Parton’s father had to leave school early to begin working and help provide for his family. Although he garnered a wealth of knowledge in the trades, her father carried the weight of illiteracy for much of his life. It was this disadvantage that inspired Parton to create the Imagination Library in his honour.

“When I got this idea to do the Imagination Library, I wanted to get Daddy involved in it,” said Parton. “I wanted him to help me with that so he could take pride in that, and so he did. He got to live long enough to hear the kids call me the Book Lady—he used to love that.”

As Parton saw it, if her father was never able to learn to read, there must have been a higher calling in place for him.

“I kept telling him that everybody has a different purpose in life, and if nothing else, maybe this is why you couldn’t read and write,” she continued. “Maybe God knew a long time ago that I was going to do something that would help millions of kids and people that couldn’t read and write. So I tried to give him that pride.”

And indeed, she did. In 2022, the program reached the milestone of mailing two million books each month and its impact is only growing. The Imagination Library operates in all 50 states with 15 statewide programs in the United States, with three more set to launch this year, and is established in every province and territory in Canada.

The basis of the program is the need for increased reading and parental bonding at an age when a child is developing at a rapid rate—studies have shown that this time is critical for future education.

Children who are enrolled from birth receive 60 books by the time they graduate from the Imagination Library, and the selection of books is ever-increasing, with audio, braille, and bilingual book options available, so no child is left behind.

The Imagination Library also recognizes the need to champion Canadian content for young Canadian readers. This year, 47 of the 60 books to be sent out in Canada are published by Penguin Random House Canada and written or illustrated by Canadian authors and illustrators.

By the time Parton’s father passed in 2000, she had achieved her dream of giving him the pride of helping children learn to read. At the time, the Imagination Library was beginning to replicate its system across the United States, with the promise of reaching thousands more children becoming a reality.

In 2018, Parton dedicated the 100th million book, Coat of Many Colors, which she authored herself, to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., a fitting tribute to her humble father. “In 2018, Parton dedicated the 100th million book, Coat of Many Colors, which she authored herself, to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., a fitting tribute to her humble father. As of 2023, the Imagination Library had another milestone to celebrate: over 200 million free books have been gifted globally since the program’s inception in 1995.

Photo © Courtesy of the Dollywood Foundation

“Of course, I have not done this alone,” said Parton. “The real heroes of our story are the thousands of local organizations who have embraced my dream and made it their own. They raise millions of dollars each year and wake up every day with a passion to make sure their kids have every opportunity to succeed.”

For each country, the process of getting books out to readers is similar: DWF covers overhead costs and negotiates wholesale pricing for the books, while local community partners fundraise to cover the cost of books and mailing. Many communities use the Imagination Library as part of a larger strategy to increase early literacy through libraries, schools, municipalities or provinces. In Canada, Prince Edward Island and the Yukon have a shared funding model where the Provincial/Territorial Government covers half of the local cost. Large and small libraries, such as Calgary Public Library and Edmonton Public Library, offer the program to further inspire a love of reading. Newfoundland and Labrador has had tremendous growth over the past year with the help of an anonymous private donor covering 75 per cent of the local costs required.

“In the beginning, my hope was simply to inspire the children in my home county, but here we are today with a worldwide program that gives a book a month to well over two million children,” Parton shared.

More to Love, More to Learn

Outside of the Imagination Library, Parton’s DWF champions education and empowerment—the two are often linked, after all—particularly in her hometown. In 1991, a few years after the launch of DWF, Parton started the Buddy Program, where students in 7th and 8th grade were asked to “buddy up” with another student, with the promise of $500 if they both successfully graduated. Dropout rates for these two classes fell from 35 per cent to six per cent!

Each year, DWF provides $15,000 in Dolly Parton Scholarship funds to five high school students in Sevier County, Tennessee, where the Foundation is headquartered, to help further their education at any accredited university.

DWF also gives out several additional scholarships, such as the $30,000 Special Merit scholarship Parton gave to a young girl in Arkansas in 2016 in celebration of the Imagination Library reaching a milestone of one million books mailed out each month. Once the recipient reaches 18 years of age in 2032, the scholarship will be $60,000. That same year, Parton established the My People Fund, which raised over $12 million for families who lost their homes in the Sevier County fires on November 28, 2016.

In 2017, following the release of her children’s album, I Believe in You, Parton donated $1 million to the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in honour of her niece, who was treated for leukemia at that same hospital. Last year, Parton returned to Vanderbilt University Medical Center with another $1 million donation, this time to help further pediatric infectious disease research.

With 51 Grammy nominations under her belt, Parton is an undisputed legend for her contributions to music, but her philanthropic contributions are just as noteworthy—not to mention creative. Her theme park, Dollywood, was created to provide jobs for local families and build a tourist attraction to generate income for the community. In 2022, Parton was one of five recipients of the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy—an honour that marks her incredible impact on the world.

From childhood literacy and medical care to breaking down educational barriers, Parton has become a source of inspiration for many, constantly using her success to bring positivity, empowerment, and giving to the world. Now, with the Imagination Library, she’s also spreading love for literacy, helping children worldwide grow and learn through the magic of reading.

“The most gratifying thing for me is doing good in the world,” said Parton. “I’m a big believer that when you are in a position to help, you should help. It is such a wonderful thing to see a little child’s face light up when they get their own book out of the mailbox with their little name on it. I am as proud of the Imagination Library as anything I’ve ever done.”

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