Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program inspires a lifetime love of learning
Story by JEN CALHOUN
Every time Madeline Moss gets a new book in the mail, she practically dances with joy. “As soon as she opens it, she instantly wants us to read it to her,” says her father, Ty Moss, a Quitman resident.
But that’s not the only time the 3-year-old gets excited about reading. “Every night when she gets ready for bed, she goes and gets a book,” Ty says. “We read every night before bed, and we also read when she brings us a book and asks us to read. So, really, anytime.”
Some of Madeline’s books come from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a program that sends free books to children from birth to 5 years old no matter the family’s income. “We love the program, because it brings a new book every month,” Ty says. “It gives the opportunity for kids and parents to bond over reading. It also gives a sense of excitement for kids to receive something in the mail every month.”
FOR THE LOVE OF LEARNING
Madeline is one of more than 2 million children worldwide enrolled in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. The programs are available in all 50 states. Most often, they are established and maintained by local organizations, although about 15 states currently offer statewide programs.
Madeline’s family registered through the Pilot Club of Quitman, which sponsors the program for children within the Alba-Golden, Quitman and Yantis ZIP codes in Wood County. The club ultimately hopes to sponsor about 552 children every year.
“Receiving an age-appropriate book every single month builds a child’s anticipation and excitement around reading and learning,” says Susan Ukleja, chairwoman of the Quitman Pilot Club and chair of the club’s Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library project. “It is such a fun way for them to build confidence and a firm educational foundation to lean on as they enter school.”
In addition, the establishment of reading routines has been found to bring about increased stability, emotional well-being and an improved family atmosphere, according to research distributed by the Imagination Library.
“Simply getting books into the home changes the trajectory of children, families and communities,” says Nora Briggs, executive director of the Dollywood Foundation, which launched the first program nearly 30 years ago. “Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is an accomplished, simple and effective way to make communities better places to live by supporting and nurturing a love of books, shared family time and early learning.”
ON A MISSION
Dolly started the book-gifting program in Sevier County, Tennessee, in 1995, as a tribute to her father, the late Robert Lee Parton Sr., who worked as a sharecropper and went on to farm his own acreage. Despite his lack of education, he had a knack for turning a profit. “He was the smartest man I have ever known, but I know in my heart his inability to read probably kept him from fulfilling all of his dreams,” Dolly says.
Now, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has given nearly 200 million books to children in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Republic of Ireland. More than 24 million books were gifted in 2022 — a nearly 12% increase over 2021.
And while the program started small, Dolly’s ambitions for it grew as other organizations and volunteer groups implemented the Imagination Library concept in their own communities. “Inspiring kids to love to read became my mission,” she says.
Since the Pilot Club of Quitman introduced its Imagination Library program, local families have been thrilled to participate.
The 43-member, all-volunteer nonprofit worked to involve businesses and other organizations in the community, as well. The club bought a life-sized Dolly Parton cardboard cutout and took it to local events and businesses. “She’s making the rounds,” says Paige Eaton, a member of the club and its DPIL Committee. “One of those, Peoples Telephone Cooperative, was highly receptive to the idea and even promoted her arrival to their facility on their social media pages.”
Other local groups have also thrown their support to the program. “We’ve had community members and other civic organizations direct financial gifts to help fund the project,” Paige says. “Because of this, we expect to be able to provide this program to our local children long term. Texas Electric Cooperatives even funded half of our first-year costs, the Yantis Lions Club is helping and we’ve had individuals donate via the imaginationlibrary.com website.”
The importance of communities coming together to make life better for children is a big part of what the Imagination Library is all about. But for Dolly Parton, the most important part is giving children a love for learning.
“Our place in all of this is pretty simple,” Dolly says. “We want to inspire a love of books. Kids are pretty simple in that they will do what they love to do, and we want to inspire children to love books and reading!”
Set it up! If you city or county does not offer an Imagination Library program, there are ways to set one up. Visit imaginationlibrary.com to learn more or to find a program in your area.