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Katie Ryan remembers her daughter running excitedly from the mailbox, clutching a small package in her hands.
“Dolly sent me a book!” the child shouted.
Who wouldn’t be thrilled to receive a book from Dolly Parton?
Ryan’s two children have been enrolled in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library for more than five years. The service, founded by the legendary country music singer nearly three decades ago as a way to help young children develop reading skills, delivers one book each month to any child under 5 years old who is signed up. Kids can begin receiving books from the time they are born, which means by age 5 they will have gotten 60 books — for free.
“Once a month in the mail, a book appears,” said Ryan, who lives in Clifton Forge. Her 5-year-old daughter recently aged out of the program, but she signed up her 1-year-old son.
The books, which ranged from lift-the-flap books to bilingual stories and classics, arrived in shrink-wrapped plastic, with a note from Dolly attached.
“My daughter was drawn to the books,” Ryan said. “I mean, it’s from Dolly. It’s a very cool program.”
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has delivered nearly 200 million free books to children in five countries since the program started in 1995. Nearly two million books are shipped each month, according to leaders of The Dollywood Foundation based in Sevierville, Tennessee.
The program has spread across Southwest and Central Virginia in the past couple of years, where it reaches families in more than two dozen counties and cities from Lee County to Mecklenburg, north to Albemarle and beyond.
Soon, the program could cover the entire commonwealth, with funding provided by the General Assembly.
Lynda Harrill, who runs an Albemarle County-based sports and education nonprofit, has spent more than two years during the pandemic to establish Imagination Libraries in 20 localities that were not previously part of the program. Last year, she worked with Del. Matthew Fariss, R-Campbell County, to get a budget amendment passed by the General Assembly that currently funds $481,180 for one-half of local costs of joining the program.
The 2024 state budget that takes effect July 1 includes even more money for the Imagination Library program. The budget calls for $1.15 million in direct aid, which should be enough money to start programs in just about every county in Virginia. The money would go to nonprofits or other agencies that oversee the Imagination Library in their locality. To enroll in the program, those chapters pay a small fee for children who are eligible to receive books.
Harrill, whose QuickStart Tennis of Central Virginia organization has introduced tennis to beginners, especially underserved children, since 2009, was inspired to lead the effort when many Virginia schools resorted to virtual learning during the early days of the pandemic in 2020.
Virginia students suffered some of the biggest decline in reading and math scores in the country the past two years, according to several studies. Harrill thinks that if Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program is implemented across the state, it can help children improve literacy skills, especially younger kids.
“We want to prepare kids for the school-readiness test they take at the beginning of kindergarten,” Harrill said.
Seeing Virginia students’ Standards of Learning reading test pass-rate drop precipitously the past three years, from 78 percent to 69 percent, has made her cause more urgent.
“I see these numbers and I decided, ‘I’m not having this anymore,’” she said. “We’ve failed too many children. Reading is the basis for everything. Dolly is part of the answer.”
‘Great exposure to books’
Haley Livesay has three children, ages 8, 5 and 2, and each has a bookshelf in their bedrooms to hold all of Dolly’s books.
Her family already has more than 100 books, with the youngest child still eligible for a book a month from Dolly for three more years.
“It’s given them great exposure to books,” said Livesay, a former preschool teacher who homeschools her children. She said that her son, who is in second grade, reads at nearly a fourth-grade level.
She and her husband grew up in Covington and now live in Suffolk because of her husband’s military career. They signed up for the Imagination Library program through the Alleghany Highlands YMCA in Covington. Livesay’s mother receives the books then delivers them to her grandchildren.
“We have access to various types of books,” Livesay said. “A lot are books we wouldn’t have known about otherwise.”
The first book a child receives from Dolly is always “The Little Engine That Could,” which Parton has said was one of the first stories her mother told her as a child in East Tennessee.
Livesay said each of her children received a copy of the classic, which she then shared with other families, making her a sort of lending library for the neighborhood.
“We didn’t need three copies of ‘The Little Engine That Could,’” she said, “So, we pass them on to friends, give them to a church nursery or a moms’ meeting.”
(Side fact: the first “welcome book” for children in the UK is “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” by Beatrix Potter, and in Ireland it’s “TiN” by Chris Judge.)
Livesay’s children have discovered plenty of other favorites, which include books from the popular “Lllama Llama” series by Anna Dewdney and Parton’s very own “I Am a Rainbow,” a book illustrated by Heather Sheffield.
Ryan, whose family also signed up for the Imagination Library through the Alleghany Highlands YMCA, said she appreciates that the program does include new titles among classics.
The final book every 5-year-old receives is “Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come” by author Nancy Carlson.
“The diversity of the books shows all the cultural, ethnic and different places that we otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to,” she said.
She had wanted to check out “Hair Love,” an illustrated book that was a companion to Matthew Cherry’s Oscar-winning animated short film of the same name about a Black father’s comic efforts to style his young daughter’s unruly hair.
“Then it appeared in the mail,” Ryan said. “It was on my list.”
‘Why not Virginia?’
Parton started the Imagination Library in East Tennessee in 1995, dedicating the program to her father, who never learned to read or write.
“She tells the story frequently about how her father inspired her,” said Nora Briggs, executive director of The Dollywood Foundation in North America, who leads the Imagination Library program in the United States and Canada.
“She said that her father was the smartest man she ever knew, but that his inability to read or write held him back and kept him from achieving his dreams. What better way to honor her father than by giving children free books? And I mean a lot of them.”
The program stretches across all 50 states as well as Australia, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Briggs said that the Imagination Library “is more than just a feel-good program.” She said that reading to young children improves their brain development and also fosters more interaction between parents and children.
“Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library certainly makes people happy, but more importantly, it changes lives,” Briggs said.
Ryan, the mom with two kids in Clifton Forge, concurred that most of the books are designed for reading together.
“It’s books that you read to kids and discuss, ask questions,” she said. “You get a reading guide with suggested questions as you read with your child. You can engage with your child after the book.”
Briggs said that research shows that young children who participate in the program improve their readiness for kindergarten, and that they score better on reading, math and science tests.
The way the program works is through local partner agencies, which cover some of the costs of mailing free books to families. Local partners include libraries, civic clubs, nonprofit groups or even chambers of commerce or local school boards. In Bedford County, for example, the United Way of Central Virginia sponsors the program, while in Washington County, the public library system is the partner.
The Imagination Library program is not available in most of the Roanoke and New River valleys. Harrill, who has worked to add programs across Central and Southwest Virginia, has contacted several counties about the program, and she hopes the General Assembly’s funding will bring Imagination Libraries to the entire state.
Currently, a locality’s partner agency pays $2.10 per child based on the number of children under age 5 in that community. The program’s funding formula estimates 65 percent of eligible children will enroll during a five-year period, which means a locality would cover costs for that percentage of children.
For example, according to The Dollywood Foundation, if a locality has 1,000 eligible children, then the expense covers 65 percent of that number, which is 650 kids. At $2.10 per child, the annual cost for the local chapter would be $16,380 per year. The families receive the books at no cost to them.
Briggs, the foundation’s executive director, said local investment demonstrates commitment to the program.
“Dolly truly believes that if you give it away completely free, people won’t value it,” Briggs said. “The piece of local funding means they have skin in the game.”
A small, poor county might not have enough skin, though. Craig County, a rural county near Roanoke with fewer than 5,000 residents and a slightly higher poverty rate than the state average, has not had financial capability to support a program until the local electric co-op stepped in. Now, the county has started an Imagination Library program with help from the Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative, which will pay the remainder of the cost not covered by the state for books for the estimated 521 eligible children. The Craig County Public Library in New Castle will oversee the program and enroll participants.
Even with the commonwealth covering half of the program’s costs in 2022-23, Craig County did not have enough money to pay for the rest of it — which would’ve been just over $500 per year.
“We looked into the Dolly Parton program before, but even [the state] paying half didn’t help us,” said Letha Persinger, the county librarian.
Harrill, the advocate in Albemarle County who made it a mission to bring more counties into the program, contacted the co-op for help.
“She really pulled this out for us,” Persinger said. “She went above and beyond.”
Craig County’s Imagination Library program went live on Jan. 20 and attracted 93 participants within the first week.
“It’s gone amazingly well so far,” Persinger said.
Craig County’s library opened in 2004 and employs a staff of three part-timers, Persinger said. She hopes that the Imagination Library program will bring more patronage to the county library, which has reduced open hours in recent years due to budget cuts.
“This Dolly thing is huge for us,” Persinger said. “We’re hoping it will cause more people to donate to the library, so we can stay open. If the library shuts down, the program shuts down. For a lot of kids here, this will be so exciting to have something coming every month. Maybe more people will support us.”
That’s where more state funding could help, Harrill said. If the General Assembly covers the cost for the state, every municipality in Virginia, every eligible child could enroll in the program.
She said that about 481,000 children under age 5 live in Virginia. She estimates that it will take five years to get 65 percent of eligible children enrolled, which at that time the cost to the state for every kid to receive a free book each month from Dolly Parton will be $3.9 million annually.
“Twelve states subsidize the program,” Harrill said. “Why not Virginia?”
Briggs, the Dollywood Foundation’s executive director, said other benefits of a state-supported Imagination Library include the ability to partner with all state agencies and family resource programs, which would increase access to books for children in foster care, or who are born in a prison or whose families are enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition programs. The Imagination Library could partner with state parks, the Department of Education and local school divisions to assist with remedial learning, dual language and adult education programs.
“A state program ensures that all children are on an equitable footing from the beginning,” Briggs said. “We can help pull communities and families together.”
There’s another bonus, Harrill said.
“If you get a program statewide,” Harrill said, “Dolly will do an event with you.”
Many children who receive books know Parton as “Aunt Dolly,” Briggs said.
“A lot of them don’t know that she’s a singer,” Briggs said. “They know her as the book lady.”