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How One Compassionate Woman Put 150 Million Books Into the Hands of Kids

Dolly Parton: Book Hero

Who’s Reading What We Write?

It feels like everyone wants to write. Bloggers abound. Hundreds of content platforms exist. Seems like everybody wants to publish a “how-to” book, a memoir, or a book of poetry. Some estimates are that more than 6 million books are published every year, with self-publishing increasing daily.

Reading material is everywhere, and has been for several millennia. Since the invention of the Gutenberg Press in 1440, estimates are that there have been over 130 million unique titles printed.

So if there is that much material out there, how many readers are there?

Not enough.

How Do We Make More Readers?

Years ago, I heard the novelist Gore Vidal do a television interview. He said something to the effect that there are millions of writers and not nearly enough readers. More than a decade ago, he told Publishers Weekly,

“People don’t read books. Writing has very little influence on people at large. Very little influence on the ruling class. They don’t read anything, either.”

His comments embrace the question of when “the great cretinism” of the United States began, asking in his acerbic manner when people got so dumb.

It’s a question I often ask myself. As an educator and book-lover, what is the secret to creating more lifelong readers? How DO we instill the desire to read, making sure that it’s never a chore, but a joy, an adventure, an enriching, satisfying, deep dive that ends up cultivating articulate, thoughtful people?

We need people to champion books — not just to write them, but to get them into the hands of kids, to show them how much fun it can be to hear a story, to look at the pictures, to open the pages and put their fingers on the words.

Enter Dolly Parton, a True Book Hero

Dolly Parton is putting books into the hands of children.

Dolly Parton, that famed and fabulous singer who has dozens of awards to her credit for her musical talents ranging from singing to songwriting to acting has come to the rescue.

Yes, that very same Dolly Parton who has been rocking the entertainment industry for decades. The woman known for her smile, her country upbringing, and her stints at the Grand Ole’ Opry. The vocalist and performer who’s been honored at the Kennedy Center for the Arts and given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in 2011.

That remarkable woman is a true book hero.

While I love music and enjoy listening to her, it’s not her Lifetime Achievements in the entertainment industry that I value. It’s her lifetime achievement of putting books into homes so that children all across the globe. can learn to read.

As of February of 2021, Dolly Parton’s quest to get books to children resulted in the “gifting” of 154,142,135 books to families all over the world.

Did you get that?

Dolly Parton’s vision to help kids become readers has given away more than 150 MILLION books.

She did it through her organization Imagination Library.

Creating Readers by Providing Books

Dolly Parton grew up in rural Appalachia, one of the twelve children in a family that didn’t have much money. She loved her parents and said,

“My father was the smartest man I have ever known, but in my heart, I believe his inability to read probably kept him from fulfilling all his dreams.”

As a tribute to her dad, Robert Lee Parton, Dolly started a program to give books to families in Sevier County, Tennessee, her home county, so that all children would be exposed to reading. She said,

“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. 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 a better future.”

Dolly was gratified when before her father died, he told her how proud he was of her when he heard the kids calling her “The Book Lady.”

How Imagination Library Works

When Imagination Library was founded in 1995, Dolly and her organization provided books to children in her home county, and then it expanded to nearby counties in Tennessee. Any child from birth to age five was eligible, and by 2003, Imagination Library had mailed one million books.

In 2004, the state of Tennessee agreed to help the program go statewide.

Just a year later, an International Book Committee was formed, laying the basis for books to be mailed not just all over the United States, but across the globe. Canada was added in 2006, UK in 2007, Australia in 2013, and Ireland in 2019.

Registration is free and available to families living in communities where a local partner (like a State Agency, public library, or nonprofit organizations) has partnered up with Imagination Library. The local partners pay $25.00 per year per child to have the books mailed.

The books are chosen by reading specialists and educators to match each year of the child’s age and are both recognized, familiar titles and new books. One book is mailed per child each month. Uretta Todd, the mother of a four-year-old and recipient of Imagination Library’s books said that the selection of books

“…exposes us to books we wouldn’t have necessarily picked out.”

Just another way that books are broadening horizons and expanding minds.

Book Hero, Champion, Angel Among Us

Most people know Dolly Parton for her musical awards and her exuberant performances.

But more people should know that she is so much more than a singer. I’m not even sure what the appropriate title for her would be. Book hero? Champion? Angel Among Us?


Dolly Parton Photo
“Dolly Parton 1988” by Alejo Castillo

If you believe in the power of literacy and the need for children to have books, you will be awed by Dolly Parton’s contribution to the creation of readers in our society. Kids who might grow up to look farther than a Facebook post or a text message to understand an issue. Kids who will pick up a book, a magazine, or an online publication to dig into the issues. Kids who can read for pleasure instead of constant binging.

I can only imagine the future effect of providing a world of children with hundreds of millions of books. I can only think of Dolly Parton and thank her.

She didn’t know her idea would have the kind of impact it has had:

“We never thought it would be this big. I just wanted to do something great for my dad and for my home county, and, at the most, maybe a couple of counties over. But then it just took wings of its own, and I guess it was just meant to be.”

Over the years, much has been made of Dolly Parton’s physique. I’m sure she was built that way so her huge, compassionate heart would have somewhere to live.


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