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.