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Literacy in America

How Dolly Parton Turned Her Passion Into a Worldwide Literacy Program

Photos: Courtesy of The Dollywood Foundation

Early development, including helping children under 5 learn to read, has long been a passion project for singer-songwriter Dolly Parton, in honor of her father.

“My daddy could not read or write, so I grew up seeing how limiting it can be,” she said. “I often say he was the smartest man I have ever known, but I always wonder what else he could have done if he knew how to read. The Imagination Library will always be my tribute to him.”

Twenty-five years ago, she launched Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library (DPIL), a book gifting program for children 5 and under in her home county in Tennessee. The program now spans five countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada. Preschool children receive a specially selected, age-appropriate book each month. As of December, the Imagination Library has gifted over 150 million books.

Dolly’s mission

“Inspiring kids to love to read became my mission,” said the 11-time Grammy Award winner. “In the beginning, my hope was simply to inspire the children in my home county, but here we are today with a worldwide program that gives a book a month to well over 1.7 million children.”

Before he died, Parton’s father told her the Imagination Library was probably the most important thing she’d ever done. 

“To have even a remote chance for success, you have to know how to read and write,” said the actress and author. “And the best way to learn is to love books and love reading.”

The books, which are selected by a committee of early childhood experts, focus on core human values, such as respect, acceptance, consideration, empathy, and love toward other human beings. The program received a Best Practice Award from the U.S. Library of Congress for addressing social barriers to literacy. 

The magic of a book

The Imagination Library is part of The Dollywood Foundation, a non-profit organization Parton started in 1988 to inspire kids to achieve educational success. Parton’s vision is to help kids develop a lifelong love of reading, prepare them for school, and inspire them to dream. 

“I want the child to feel the magic of a book arriving and the excitement of opening it up,” Parton said. “This love of books will last a lifetime.”

Both DPIL and The Dollywood Foundation support and provide resources for families to build literacy learning at home. Their goal is to get more communities involved in the program and to enroll more children.

Emotional literacy

Research shows a child’s brain develops more from birth to age 5 than at any other time in life. That early brain development has a lifelong impact on a child’s ability to learn; experiences during that time — positive or negative — shape how their brains develop.

Early learning development is always important but it’s been challenging during the pandemic when libraries, schools, community centers, and childcare facilities are closed in many parts of the United States and many families don’t have learning resources at home. 

Kids 0-5 are experiencing the pandemic during a critical time in their development. Parents and caregivers can nurture their children with language-rich interactions like talking, reading, and singing to provide a safe, stable, and supportive environment at home. 

Parton and her team at DPIL worry about the widening of the resource gap to support school-age children. It’s important to support the youngest and most vulnerable children during COVID-19 using a contactless approach. They encourage families to give books to kids and read to them, too. 

Reading can help kids develop the emotional literacy skills to control situations where they might feel vulnerable and unsafe. Plus, research shows that regular reading routines are linked to healthier mental outcomes.

To register a child to receive books, donate or help start a program in your community, go to

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