10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library
by Laura Lambert
Quietly, steadily, and rather impressively over the last 25-plus years, Dolly Parton — yes, that Dolly Parton — has been making sure that the nightstands of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers all over the U.S. have a nice little stack of books to reach for at bedtime — or any time, really. At last count, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library mails books to more than 2.2 million children each month, which means this one little book program is putting books in the hands of over ten percent of the nation’s children under the age of five. “It’s a very exciting challenge” says Sam Roberts, Director of Operations for the Dollywood Foundation, which runs the Imagination Library. “There are a lot of moving parts.”
What else is there to know about the Imagination Library? Here are ten fun facts about the organization:
Any child in the U.S. can participate in the program (as long as there’s a local sponsor). Any child qualifies, regardless of income. To date, there are over 2,700 local organizations, working in thousands of communities around the world. (There are also programs in the U.K., Canada, the Republic of Ireland, and even Australia.)
It’s a lot of books. If a child is signed up at birth, they’ll receive up to 60 different books by the time they reach the age of five, when they officially age out. There are multiple bilingual (English and Spanish) titles available throughout the collection. Almost every child of the same age will receive the same books each year, and many of the books come with discussion guides for parents or caregivers. The Imagination Library partners with the American Printing House for the Blind to provide books in Braille as well. In 2022 alone, the Imagination Library mailed 24,708,008 books for the year, which translates to a book being mailed every 1.27 seconds.
Every child, no matter their age, starts with the same book. With its timeless message of perseverance, The Little Engine That Could is the first book kids receive and it’s the perfect touch. The book also comes with a personal message from Dolly Parton about the importance of reading. The edition in the Imagination Library was illustrated by Caldecott award-winning illustrator, Dan Santat — whose inspiring message about the power of positive thinking is also included. After that, each child gets a book specifically geared toward their age, whether it’s a simple board book with bright colors and shapes for babies or a more complex story about emotions and challenges for kids who are heading off to kindergarten.
Every child receives the same final book. Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come is a fitting send-off for kids who are aging out of the program and into school for the first time, especially for those who don’t attend preschool.
It’s a mix of popular and lesser-known titles. The most popular books by far in the Imagination Library come from the Llama Llama series, says Roberts, who reads each and every piece of parent feedback. “The rhyme and repetition make it exciting and memorable for a child,” he says. But readers are sure to find some surprises in the lineup as well. Meg Miles, whose daughter Macey was part of the Imagination Library program in Williston, North Dakota, for several years, already had a home full of books. As a preschool teacher and mother of two older children, reading, and books had always been top priority — the Imagination Library just made it even better. “Every book that comes is a different genre,” says Miles. “These were books I’d never heard of — and not in a bad way.” Green Tractor, an adorable concept board book, was an instant favorite for Candice Gautreau’s son. “It is barely holding itself together almost two years later, and he still wants us to read it to him daily.” Others appreciate the diversity found within the titles. “I read this to my daughter tonight and she loved it!” shares one mom of Alex’s Good Fortune, a story about a young girl celebrating Chinese New Year. Dolly’s own book, Coat of Many Colors, based on her famous song, is in there as well.
The titles change each year. Roughly a quarter of the books in the program shift each year to make room for new titles and topics. The selection process involves educators, reading specialists, and early childhood professionals poring over hundreds of titles to select up to 70 books for the coming year, from birth through age five. Roberts looks over every title as well — it’s his favorite part of the job. Together, they look for developmentally appropriate books that hew to these core values: a love of reading and learning; regard for diversity of people, their roles, cultures, and environments; promotion of self-esteem and confidence; and appreciation of art and aesthetics.
Diverse books are important. “That’s something the committee looks for — books that are windows and mirrors,” says Roberts. It’s a phrase that he learned from children’s book author Matt De La Peña, meaning that we need books to be both mirrors — reflecting one’s own thoughts and feelings — and windows — giving us a view of someone else’s life. Especially in the last ten years, says Roberts, there’s been a marked increase in the diversity of the books in the Imagination Library’s age range. “We have so many different and diverse families,” says Roberts — not just diversity in race or socioeconomic status, but also in terms of location (from rural families to urban families).
You wouldn’t believe how many books the Imagination Library has mailed. As of February 2023, the Imagination Library has gifted over 200 million books (and counting!) since it was founded. “It’s the program that could,” says Roberts. “It’s been chugging along for over 27 years now.”
It all started in Tennessee. Back in 1995, Dolly Parton simply wanted to help the kids in Sevier County, Tennessee, where she was born. Since then, Tennessee became the first state to have children in all 96 of its counties participating in the Imagination Library.
It was all inspired by Dolly Parton’s father. Robert Lee Parton could neither read nor write; he started working at a young age and never went to school. His story — and struggle — inspired Dolly to do something more for the kids of East Tennessee, and eventually all over the English-speaking world. “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,” she told NPR. “So I just think that it’s important for kids to be encouraged to read, to dream and to plan for a better life and better future.” And Parton has helped to do just that — one book, and one child, at a time.
Correction Notice: An earlier version of this article claimed that a child in the program would receive up to 70 different books from birth to age five. This is incorrect and we apologize for the error. If a child is signed up at birth, they’ll receive up to 60 different books by the time they reach the age of five.