The Book Lady

Dolly Parton's Imagination Library AP

Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, which sends free books to thousands of preschool children every month, has given the country queen a new identity.

"The kids call me the 'book lady,'" Parton said, giggling. "I think it is great."

Parton launched the library in 1996 to promote reading among preschool children in Sevier County, a rural community in the Great Smoky Mountains where Parton grew up and owns an amusement park.

It generated so much interest that two years ago she decided to offer the program nationally. Today, Parton's books reach nearly 50,000 children in 31 communities in a dozen states: Tennessee, Kansas, Georgia, South Dakota, Iowa, North Carolina, South Carolina, Missouri, California, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Maine.

Publisher Penguin Putnam expects to distribute 300,000 hardback books this year to Parton's young readers. At its current pace, Imagination Library is on track to ship 1 million volumes annually in a few years.

The books - from life's little lessons to bedtime stories - are mailed once a month, starting at birth and continue through 60 selections until the child turns 5. The titles are age appropriate.

The first in the series is "The Little Engine That Could," setting the "I think I can, I think I can ..." tone. The last is "Look Out Kindergarten: Here I Come."

One Sevier County kindergarten teacher, Edna Rogers, said the change in the county's entry-level classrooms has been dramatic. "I remember when the kids didn't even know what a nursery rhyme was because Momma didn't read nursery rhymes to them," she said. "Now youngsters entering kindergarten are "ready to read and are excited about it."

Parton's nonprofit Dollywood Foundation, which she finances through charity Christmas concerts at her Dollywood theme park, handles the details - organizing the educator panel that picks the titles, placing the orders and distributing the books.

Outside Sevier County, the foundation offers the program to any community with a local sponsor willing to pay just $27 a child per year.

The United Way has adopted the program in at least six communities.

"Our donors supported it so much we actually had the largest increase in our United Way in the last 17 years," said Laura Bowman, United Way program coordinator in Sioux Falls, S.D.

More than 6,000 children, nearly half of Sioux Falls' preschool population, have signed up since registration began in January, she said.

Carolyn Gibson, an early childhood education coordinator in Spartanburg County, S.C., said all seven school districts in her county have adopted Dolly's library, underwritten by the local United Way.

A quarter of Spartanburg County's 16,000 preschoolers have signed up since December. "It has been tremendous," Gibson said. "Parents are just thrilled to death with the program."

In February, the American Association of School Administrators presented its fourth Galaxy Award to Parton for her contributions to education. Past recipients include Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates and John Glenn.

So "book lady" doesn't sound so bad.

"My husband thinks that's the greatest compliment I've ever been paid," Parton said. "He says, 'It means you are doing something worthwhile.' Hopefully, we are."


By Duncan Mansfield
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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