In a program called the Imagination Library, country music legend Dolly Parton has provided nearly 50 million free books to children.
“Everywhere I go,” Parton told PBS, “the kids call me the ‘Book Lady.'”
Imagination Library started in 1996 in one rural Tennessee town and has now expanded to include more than 1,400 communities in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain.
One child, Madeleine Carter, lives with her great-grandmother in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, home of Parton’s family theme park, Dollywood. Maddy had a transient childhood, bouncing back and forth between the homes of her mother and father before finally coming to live with her great-grandmother.
“If she hadn’t had those books, she wouldn’t have had anything until she started kindergarten,” said Mae Lea Barker of her great-granddaughter. “Maddy was very quiet when she was little because she was just moved around so much.”
But everywhere that Maddy went, she took her books from Imagination Library.
“She had something that she could call hers,” said Barker.
“We send these books to them in their little name, with their name on it,” Parton said in an interview with PBS education reporter John Merrow. “They look forward to going to the mailbox. This is theirs,” she said. She hopes that each child will say, “This is mine, so I am either going to learn to read it or make somebody teach me how to read it.”
Every newborn born in Parton’s home county of Sevier County, Tennessee receives a book. Families can also register at local libraries to receive 60 free books per child, one a month up to age five.
The singer started the program after watching her father struggle in life because of his inability to read or write.
“It was a very crippling thing for him,” said Parton. “He was such a brilliant man.”
The Dollywood Foundation has a $20 million per year budget, which it uses to buy and ship books to all of the families who sign up, shipping more than 1,000 books per month.
Children who are read to and who grow up in homes with books do better in school. According to Forbes magazine, 60 percent of U.S. prison inmates are illiterate. 85 percent of juvenile offenders have reading problems.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that 50 percent of unemployed young people (ages 16-21) are functionally illiterate.
“The older I get, the more appreciative I get of the ‘Book Lady’ title,” said Parton. “It’s makes me feel more like a legitimate person, not just a singer or an entertainer. But it makes me feel like I have done something good with — with my life and with my success.”
Watch the video, embedded below via PBS:
Watch Country Music Legend Dolly Parton’s New Role: “Book Lady” on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.