Every month, Dolly Parton's Imagination Library mails a free book to children registered for the program; enrollment can begin at birth and lasts until a child turns five. A nonprofit promoting the joys of literacy to children may seem an unlikely endeavor for the iconic singer-songwriter who's best known for hits like "9 to 5," "Jolene," and "I Will Always Love You." Yet a closer look at her life makes it clear why helping children learn to love reading is a passion for this one-of-a-kind star.
Parton wanted 'to make Daddy proud'
Parton has often spoken about her father's life, as when she said in 2019, "Well, my dad, like so many country people, the hard-working people, especially back in the rural areas, my dad never had a chance to go to school because he had to help make a living for the family. And so, Daddy couldn’t read and write." Illiteracy was a source of embarrassment and frustration for Parton's father: He couldn't do things like complete forms, scan a newspaper or read to his children.
Parton witnessed how not being able to read or write impacted her intelligent father's entire life. She also asked herself, "God, if he'd had an education, I wonder what all he might've been?" Thoughts of her father and his struggles were the spark that led to the Imagination Library, as Parton wanted to "do something that would inspire kids to love reading and to love learning. He never had anyone that inspired him in such a way."
In 1995, the program began in Sevier County, Tennessee, where Parton had been raised. As books arrived, parents read more to their children. This positive response led to expansion and more children receiving books. Parton's father was able to see the Library's success before he died in 2000, which was the same year the program went national. Parton said in 2018, "It made me feel good in my heart that I could do something to make Daddy proud."
She believes books are the gateway expanding children's imaginations
Though Parton didn't love school, she did enjoy reading as a child. Fairy tales broadened her perspective: "The only thing I ever saw growing up was poor people in overalls and brogan shoes and ragged clothes. But in my books, I would read about kings and queens with their velvet clothes and big diamond rings. That’s how I knew there was a world outside the Smoky Mountains."
The Imagination Library aims to pick age-appropriate books that foster a "love of reading and learning; regard for diversity of people, their roles, culture and environment; promotion of self-esteem and confidence, appreciation of art and aesthetics." The first book distributed is one of Parton's favorites, The Little Engine That Could. A children's book by Parton herself, I Am a Rainbow, has also been included in the program.
Research has shown that exposure to reading at an early age leads to better results in school. And Parton knows that literacy has lifelong benefits. As she told NPR in 2018, "If you can read, even if you can't afford education, you can go on and learn about anything you want to know. There's a book on everything."
Parton loves being known as the 'Book Lady'
Parton and her husband don't have children, but that hasn't stopped her from being relatable to children. In fact, it's compelled her to devote as much time and energy as possible to causes like children's literacy. In 2018, she confided in People magazine, "Now that I'm older, I realize I didn’t have kids of my own, so everybody's kids could be mine."
Parton understands how to spark a child's excitement around books and reading. She shared with Parade magazine, "From the time they're born, they get books in the mail with their little names on them. They love running to the mailbox!" And she opted to make the Imagination Library available to all children, no matter their family's financial status. "I have always felt we shouldn't leave anybody out or single anybody out," she said in 2010. "Besides, it would probably cost more money to decide who needed it than it does just to give everyone a book."
Hearing children refer to her as the "Book Lady" makes Parton happy. She also hasn't felt any need to adopt a more sedate persona for her young followers. Children accept her as she is, she's explained, "I'm like Mother Goose to them. I'm like a cartoon character. I'm over-exaggerated with my look and my voice is over-exaggerated and high-pitched like a kid and I’m joyful with kids and they feel that, too."
She believes it's her 'duty' to give back
Parton journeyed from a childhood spent sharing a bed in a one-room cabin to life as a millionaire with hit records, movies and television projects, and she believes this success came with its own obligations. "I really think that once you're in a position to help, you definitely should help," she declared in a 2017 interview. "If God's been good to you, you should be good to other people. That's how we spread the love around. It makes me feel good to do it, and I think it’s my duty to do it."
Many charitable endeavors have received contributions from Parton, but working with the Imagination Library is particularly meaningful to her. During an interview with PBS, she admitted, "The older I get, the more appreciative I seem to be of the 'Book Lady' title. It makes me feel more like a legitimate person, not just a singer or an entertainer. But it makes me feel like I have done something good with my life and with my success."
As the Imagination Library has grown by pairing with local partners, Parton has continued to offer her full support. All proceeds from her first children's album, I Believe in You (2017), went to the endeavor. And when she renewed wedding vows in 2016 with her notoriously private husband, Carl Dean, photos of the event were sold to support the Library.
The singer aims to distribute one billion books
Per Parton, "You can never get enough books into the hands of young children." It's a philosophy the Imagination Library lives by. Since its launch in 1995, it's grown to work with community partners in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, plus parts of Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the Republic of Ireland. Braille and audiobooks began to be included in 2011. And there's interest in further expansion.
While it took until 2003 for the Library to mail one million books, 15 years later, it had sent out 100 million. Parton donated a children's book she'd authored, Coat of Many Colors, to the Library of Congress as the nonprofit's 100th million book. The number of books distributed, which reached more than 125 million in September 2019, continues to climb. Parton has stated, "We're going for a billion, maybe, in my lifetime."
The two-hour documentary "Biography: Dolly," premiering Sunday, April 12 at 8/7c on A&E, traces Parton’s extraordinary journey from her childhood spent in poverty and early days in Nashville to her multiple hit songs and recent 50th-anniversary celebration at The Grand Ole Opry. Watch a preview: