How Dolly Parton shares the gift of reading with children

Dolly Parton began the Imagination Library as a way to serve children and encourage literacy in her hometown of Sevier County, Tennessee.

On May 10, media representatives toured Wildwood Grove, a massive new expansion to Dolly Parton’s Dollywood® Theme Park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. But during a brief meeting afterwards, Parton became especially animated as she discussed Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

Launched in 1995, Imagination Library operates under the nonprofit Dollywood Foundation. It represents the foundation’s biggest endeavor by far: mailing free, high-quality books to children — regardless of their family’s income — from the time they are born until they reach school age.

Parton began the program as a way to serve children in Sevier County where she grew up. Tennessee then agreed to cover the entire state. By the early 2000s, Imagination Library served children across the United States, including Native American communities. Later expansion of the Imagination Library has reached Canada, as well as the United Kingdom, Australia, and the Republic of Ireland.

dolly parton sits on couch reading books to kids “My Daddy lived long enough to see the Imagination Library really take off from our hometown program to places all over the country,” Parton says. (Photo: The Dollywood Foundation)

In 2018, Parton dedicated the Imagination Library’s 100-millionth book to the Library of Congress. The program and its partners have now distributed 121 million books a number that increases by 1.4 million every month as new books are distributed.

Two longtime favorite books from the Imagination Library eventually reach every child. The Little Engine that Could is always the first book sent to an individual child. If a child is turning five, they receive Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come!

Every title in between changes monthly.

“All of our books are published just for us — we put [each child’s] name on every book,” says David Dotson, CEO of the Dollywood Foundation.

Some rural programs involve as few as ten children. Others cover children who live across an entire state. Participating locales are chosen by geography and then communities and/or sponsors replicate the Imagination Library model for their coverage areas. They often adopt it as a single program, within a broader scope of community initiatives, because they’re highly interested in early childhood development and education.

dolly parton reads book in library of congress In 2018, Parton dedicated the Imagination Library’s 100-millionth book to the Library of Congress. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Each child that lives within an area covered by a participating organization is eligible for books if s/he is under five years of age. Eight different brand-new books go out to kids every month, based on their age. Books cost about $2.10 per child per month, but they are free to parents and children.

In other cases, people have already implemented a comprehensive early childhood strategy and they add the Imagination Library piece to ensure that there are books in children’s homes. In Washington, D.C., the city government pays for the program; in Tennessee, the state now pays half and individual communities pay the other half. Approximately 1,700 organizations currently partner with Imagination Library.

“The quickest way to accomplish this is through statewide programs,” Dotson says. “[We’re in year four of] a ten-year plan that ten percent of U.S. children under five will be enrolled in the program. Locally, it’s much more about enrollment than anything else. Once kids register, their information is entered into the database."

“If you are the United Way and you want to bring the Imagination Library to [an area that you serve], you would adopt the program and maintain the database information. We take care of all the overhead and we process book orders once a month.”

dolly sits on building blocks with kids The program mails free, high-quality books to children from birth until they begin school, no matter their family’s income. (Photo: The Dollywood Foundation)

Participating organizations and sponsors also promote and raise funds for Imagination Library in the areas where they work. These efforts help to provide the "awareness piece" of the program.

Imagination Library’s operational and leadership staff includes 15 people. Nine staff members work in Pigeon Forge. Additional staff people work out of their homes — from eastern Tennessee to Columbia, Missouri; Ontario, Canada, and the U.K. Imagination Library has also developed a licensing agreement with United Way Australia.

“My Daddy lived long enough to see the Imagination Library really take off from our hometown program to places all over the country,” Parton says.

“He loved it when people called me the Book Lady and not long before he passed, he told me that of all the things I had ever done, the Imagination Library was at the top.”

Parton is Chairman of the Board. Her focus is always on larger issues, such as whether Imagination Library should expand to another country; what help she can provide to statewide programs, such as kick-off events; or how many books that she writes, herself, should be included in the Library.

Dolly sits on couch with books and kids Dolly’s home state of Tennessee pledged to pursue statewide coverage in 2004. (Photo: The Dollywood Foundation)

She makes an effort to be on hand for larger events too, such as her Library of Congress visit or appearing at this year’s National Conference of State Legislatures in Nashville, August 5-8th.

“I never dreamed the Imagination Library would reach so many kids in so many places,” Parton says.

“I know I get far more credit for all of this growth than I deserve. The real heroes are the people who work hard every day to bring the program to their children. They are my kind of people and I hope that I am their kind of people, too.”

headshot of writer Lisa Waterman Gray

Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer and photographer in Overland Park, Kan. and the Kansas City metropolitan area. Her byline has appeared in Chow Town/the Kansas City Star, Dreamscapes Travel and Lifestyle Magazine (Canadian), five AAA magazines, Midwest Living, Missouri Life, KANSAS!, Feast Magazine, and others. Lisa’s online stories have also posted at CivilEats.com, FoodTank.com, USAToday.com/10Best, OffbeatTravel.com, BusandMotorcoachNews.com, and WanderWithWonder.com. She is also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul, Messages from Heaven and Other Miracles (January 2019) and author of the 400-page statewide travel book, An Explorer’s Guide: Kansas (June 2011, The Countryman Press/W.W. Norton & Company).

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