Country music icon Dolly Parton is extending warm welcomes to supporters of her Imagination Library, a philanthropic program that mails one book a month to each enrolled child under the age of five. In words and deeds, the singer–songwriter and author of Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones (Ten Speed Press, Oct. 23) is boosting literacy and, at a politically fractured time, a message of nonpartisan unity.

On August 9, Parton paid a virtual visit to an Alabama launch event, cheering Gov. Kay Ivey’s intention to expand the Imagination Library across all 67 Alabama counties. On August 14, Parton visited Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly at an event celebrating that state’s implementation of the program. And on August 15, Parton represented the charitable organization with a stop at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma, Wash., appearing with state leaders and performing her songs “Coat of Many Colors” and “Try” to a sequin–spangled Pacific Northwest crowd.

At the Washington event, Parton joined Lt. Gov. Denny Heck onstage as Heck announced that 65,000 children already were enrolled in the Imagination Library statewide. (Gov. Jay Inslee was not in attendance, but his spouse Trudi Inslee was in the audience, as was U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer.) Parton then spoke with State Superintendent Chris Reykdal about traveling to represent her organization.

“I came all the way here because I'm very, very proud of the Imagination Library,” she said, which connects with children “from the time they're born. They get a book in the mail, once a month, with their little name on it. You remember the first time you ever got piece of mail with your name on it? It was special, right? When they get old enough to wait for that [book] in the mailbox, they're going to make somebody sit down with them and read it. It instills a love for reading.”

Washington state announced plans to grow the Imagination Library program statewide in March 2022, with support from the United Ways of the Pacific Northwest, and Parton’s visit was a culmination of that effort. “We did something remarkable for Washington’s learners together,” Imagination Library Washington executive director Brooke Fisher-Clark told the approximately 800 people in attendance, calling the Imagination Library expansion “a milestone” for “all 455,000 early learners” in the state. Washington State House Rep. Monica Stonier said the program had “bipartisan support, which is good for the state and good for our futures as well.”

Parton too called for "a little more kindness" and a spirit of "common decency—it's about respect, and listening, and being compassionate," whatever one's political orientation.

Reaching Readers in Red and Blue States

Parton established the Imagination Library in her home state of Tennessee through her Dollywood Foundation in 1995 and scaled up to a national launch in 2000. Tennessee was the first state to adopt the program statewide in 2004. Today, the Imagination Library offers 11 statewide programs (in addition to many smaller community–level affiliates), and its positive reception across locations as diverse as Arkansas, California, Montana, and Ohio suggests Parton is bridging blue– and red–identified populations. The program has distributed upwards of 213,000,000 books to young readers in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Republic of Ireland, and Australia.

The Dollywood Foundation selects the books, coordinates and negotiates monthly book orders and fulfillment, and covers overhead and administrative costs, while community affiliates promote the program, enroll children, and pay an average $2.20 per child per month toward wholesale books and mailings. Penguin Random House is the exclusive publisher for the Imagination Library, and all PRH children’s books are under consideration by the program’s selection committee.

This latest expansion of the Imagination Library comes several months after Parton accepted the 2022 Bezos Courage and Civility Award, a $100 million donation from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos that Parton said came as a surprise. The funds must go to charitable organizations and must be spent in 10 years.

With characteristic charm, Parton explained that Bezos felt she’d “spend it wisely.” She declared her intent to “go worldwide and get more books in the hands of children,” as well as support organizations that are working on behalf of children and seniors, her favorite causes. “I do a lot of things, but I don’t think I’ll do anything more personal and important than this” philanthropic effort, Parton said. “In all my charity work, I let my heart lead me.”