Remembering Her Rural Roots
By Margaret Renkl
Good Housekeeping, November 2001

Most children growing up the way Dolly Parton did—poor and isolated on hard-luck farms tucked in the foothills of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains—never found their way out. But even though a trip into Sevierville, the nearest town, was something Dolly’s family managed only a few times a year, as a little girl she never doubted the existence of a grander world, a world she planned to experience one day. The reason she could dream such big dreams, Dolly says now, was because she loved to read.

“The only thing I ever saw growing up was poor people in overalls and brogan shoes and ragged clothes,” Dolly, 55, says. “But in my books I would read about kings and queens with their velvet clothes and big diamond rings. That’s how I knew there was a world outside the Smoky Mountains. And because I felt comfortable in those stories, I knew it would be OK for me to go out in that world. My books kept me from being afraid.”

For the past six years, Dolly has been quietly returning that gift to the children of her hometown. Every month, she sends a new hardcover book to each preschool-aged child living in Sevier County—all 6,700 of them. Called Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, the program has already mailed out 200,000 books.

“As a kid, I read anything I could get my hands on,” Dolly recalls. “Even when my aunts and uncles would send up old newspapers and catalogs for us to use as toilet paper, I would always read them first.” But the impulse behind the program came as much from Dolly’s understanding of the value of education as from her love of storybooks. “My dad happened to be one of the smartest people I ever knew,” Dolly says, “but he couldn’t read, and he always felt so trapped by that. I just thought it would be a great thing for other people not to have to suffer through.”

The Dollywood Foundation also gives college scholarships and develops programs designed to reduce the school dropout rate in Sevier County. And Dolly has personally insisted on two major features of the Imagination Library (which is partnered with publisher Penguin Putnam), both designed to prevent the stigma of poverty from being attached to the giveaway books.

First, books are given to all children in the community, regardless of income. “You don’t have to be from a poor family to get free books,” Dolly explains.

Second, the books are delivered directly to each child. “I know these country people. A lot of mothers don’t even drive,” Dolly says. So the books come to the children every month in the mail. Unexpectedly, kids seem to love this feature best. “It turns out these little kids think that I put the books in their mailbox personally, just for them, almost like the Easter bunny,” says Dolly with a delighted giggle. “I’m like a fairy godmother to them. The kids even have a name for me: Now I’m the Book Lady!”

Last year, the unqualified success of the Imagination Library led Dolly to expand her efforts beyond the hills of east Tennessee. So many other communities across the United States have signed on—almost 20 in the second half of this year alone—that the program expects that it will have distributed roughly 300,000 books by the end of 2001. Though communities interested in replicating the program do need to come up with their own funding, the Dollywood Foundation will provide the books, as well as packaging and shipping—for only $27 per year per child.

Meanwhile, the little mountain girl who once dreamed of being a princess is still making big plans: “At some point in time, we really hope to do this for children all over the world,” Dolly says. And for the Book Lady of Sevierville, that doesn’t seem like an impossible dream at all.