How Dolly Parton gave back to literacy

Mike Selby

Her parents were Tennessee Hill People, raising her with her eleven other siblings in a broken down shack just north of the Smokey Mountains.

While her mother tended to the children (she had all 12 before she was 35), her father worked on their small farm for little more than the family’s subsistence.

The home could have been from any century before, with no amenities, no running water, and only straw mattresses to sleep on. Although illiterate, her parents insisted she attend the county school with the rest of her siblings.

“Don’t bring books home from school,” her father told her. “Because I can’t afford to pay for them.” With so many younger children, they were bound to be chewed on. But she did bring home a book, ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ She would credit it for changing her life.

Of course she was Dolly Parton, the multifaceted country singer who is also a television personality, film star, and theme park owner. With over 90 albums and countless awards, she may be the most beloved female country star of all time. Currently 71 years old, she works just as hard as ever, and has just released her first children’s album, ‘I Believe In You.’ The entire album is based on ‘The Little Engine That Could,’ and all proceeds it go to something called the Imagination Library.

Which turns out to be something truly amazing.

The idea came from Parton’s father who — shortly before he passed away in 2000 — told her the only regret he ever had in life was not being able to read. He told her it was a great shame he carried around. This sparked the idea to create something special in his honour. So she came up with the Imagination Library — a philanthropic organization which delivered one book a month to a child from birth until they reach kindergarten.

Parton began the program in Sevierville, TN — the closest town to the place she grew up in. It was such a success though, that is soon spread throughout the rest of Tennessee, and then the entire United States. As of last year it is now available in the United Kingdom, Australia, and here in Canada.

All it takes is for a loved one to register a child, and then he or she will receive a brand new age-appropriate book at absolutely no cost to their parents. More than one million books are sent out each month, with Parton hoping the books will spark kids to “Dream More, Learn More, Care More and Be More.”

Although her father died before he learned to read himself, he did live to see the Imagination Library affect countless lives. He told her that he was more proud of her for this than anything else she had accomplished.

The first book each child gets is ‘The Little Engine That Could,’ still being Parton’s most beloved story. “I’ve always related to that book,” she told American Libraries magazine, “because I think I’m the little engine that did!”

Mike Selby is Information Services Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Lbrary

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