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Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library expands to young readers across Missouri

Kid books reading with parent illustration
Esmé Shapiro
Special to NPR
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program has chosen Missouri to be the 14th state to expand into, providing a free book a month for all children through their 5th birthday.

Jimmy Dolan’s 4½-year-old son only knows Dolly Parton as the lady who sends him a book in the mail every month.

“The other day, a Dolly Parton song came on, and he was like wait a minute, this is the lady who's been sending me these books,” Dolan recalled. “[She] also sings? She’s a musician too?”

The country music icon’s program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, became available to all children under age 5 throughout Missouri this week. The goal is to nurture a love of reading by providing them with a free book each month until their fifth birthday.

“It’s definitely increased his love of reading,” Dolan said. “Getting a book in the mail feels special to him. We’re seeing that his teacher is saying, ‘oh, you know you’re heading into kindergarten next year. He might already be ready to start working on sight words or some like different spelling patterns.’”

Dolan enrolled his son in the program before the statewide expansion more than a year ago. The books are a hit at home. His son is always eager to check the mail for the next book.

“When he sees that he got a Dolly Parton book, he’s so pumped for it,” Dolan said.

In 2022, the Missouri legislature passed a bill that established the program statewide. The passage made Missouri the 14th state to launch a statewide Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

The following year, the legislature approved $11 million for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to fully fund the program for children to participate free of charge. So far, Missouri is the only state that’s done so.

"I was so excited to hear that now every child in Missouri is eligible for my Imagination Library,” Parton said in a statement.

The Imagination Library offers a variety of age-appropriate books selected by the program. They range from classics like the "Little Engine That Could" to new fan favorites like "Hair Love."

“It’s been really cool that there’s a lot of diverse offerings,” Dolan said. “Even if it’s a book where he doesn’t necessarily see himself, he’s seeing his friends in these books.”

The library has been available in some parts of the state with the help of 57 local affiliates. Through them, more than 17,000 children in the state have received books. Parents who have already enrolled their children in the program prior to expansion will be automatically included.

Pam Thomas, the assistant commissioner in the office of childhood in the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, called the program a game-changer for families.

“The most important thing we can do for young children is to keep them safe, to make sure they’re healthy, and to also make sure that they’re learning,” said Thomas. “There’s no better way for children to be ready for school, for parents to be engaged in their child’s development, and to introduce the love of reading at a young age.”

Parents must register their children online for the program to receive books.

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.