Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library Inspires Local Children

Dolly Parton first started her Imagination Library in 1995; she later wrote Try - a song that became a theme for the program. The lyrics provide a similar message to The Little Engine That Could which is the first book children receive when they join the program. Both Dolly’s song and the classic children’s book urge children to summon their courage to try to accomplish a difficult task and to try to make their dreams come true. Dolly Parton’s life and career are a testament to her belief in mustering the courage to make things happen and avoid the fear of failure.

Dolly Parton was born deep in the heart of Appalachian Tennessee into a family that eventually grew to twelve children. The Parton family struggled to make a living, but music was always a part of their lives. Dolly’s mother was a singer who taught Dolly church music along with folk ballads brought to America by her ancestors. After learning guitar from her uncle, Dolly landed a job on a television variety show in Knoxville when she was ten years old.

She made her first guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry at age thirteen. Moving to Nashville after graduating from high school, Dolly began to write songs for other country music stars. A critical career moment came when Dolly was asked to become the duet partner of country music star Porter Wagner on his syndicated television series. For the next ten years, she wrote, recorded, and performed songs while appearing on The Porter Wagner Show. After winning many awards for her music, Dolly headed to Hollywood. She appeared on network TV and quickly became a household word. Her movie career followed along with hit solo recordings or collaborations with other country music stars such as Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.

Even with all these accomplishments in music, film, and television, Dolly decided she wanted to do more, particularly for the people who live in the mountains of her birthplace, eastern Tennessee. In 1985, she and other investors opened the theme park Dollywood, near Sevierville. The Park quickly became one of the South’s leading tourist attractions.

As a result of her success, she established the non-profit Dollywood Foundation in 1988. This Foundation has contributed widely to local communities’s through scholarships and medical services. In 2020, Dolly donated one million dollars for Covid-19 research at Vanderbilt University.

Dolly’s father, Robert Lee Parton, was the inspiration for the most successful children’s book program in the world. Robert Parton never learned to read or write, but Dolly has said that he was “so smart in so many ways.” Dolly believed that he missed out on one of the great joys of life by never learning to read. In 1995, Dolly began sending age-appropriate, high-quality books to children from birth to age five in Sevier County at no cost to the family. The Imagination Library was born. The program quickly expanded to the entire state of Tennessee and then across the country, into Canada, and then overseas. More than 160 million books have been delivered to children. In fact, every 2 seconds, a book is gifted to a child.

Once a child is registered for the program, he or she receives a letter from Dolly and a copy of The Little Engine That Could. The book is mailed directly to each registered child. These books encourage parents to read to their children with the goal that children who receive the Imagination Library books will enter kindergarten with stronger reading skills, a larger vocabulary, and a love for reading.

Dolly’s Imagination Library has been universally praised and has won numerous awards. In 2001, the program received the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and in 2003, was awarded the Child and Family Advocacy Award from the Parents as Teachers National Center. The Best Practices Library of Congress Literacy Award was given to the Imagination Library in 2014, and in 2021, the Library of Congress awarded the program the top David M. Rubenstein Literacy Prize.

In 2000, Dolly’s father told her that of all her extensive accomplishments the Imagination Library was the one of which he was most proud. The program has changed the lives of many children around the world. Inspired by Dolly Parton’s life and the success of the Imagination Library is the message that there is a little engine in all of us, and one will succeed in any task if you just have the courage to not give up and to try.

The Imagination Library of Western Mecklenburg County serves the communities of Boydton, Buffalo Junction, Chase City, Clarksville, Nelson, and Skipwith, and is now providing books to over 300 children who live in these six communities. Parents may register their child if he or she is under five years old. Go to www.imaginationlibrary.com, click on CheckAvailability, and enter your zip code. You can also register your child at the Boydton, Chase City, or Clarksville public libraries.

Our local Imagination Library affiliate is currently conducting a campaign to raise $85,375, which will fund the program for a full five years. All monies received are used to pay for the books sent to local children. An anonymous donor will match donations dollar for dollar up to $10,000 through December 15. Just $25 provides 12 books per year for one child. $125 will sponsor a child for a full five years – giving them a personal library of 60 books when they reach the age of five.

Anyone who wishes to support this investment in the future of our children, may donate to the Mecklenburg County Public Library Foundation, P.O. Box 10, Boydton, VA 23917. The donation should be earmarked for the Imagination Library. Contributions may also be made online (www.imagination.com; choose VA-MECKLENBURG as the affiliate).