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Dolly Parton's Imagination Library officially launches in Illinois

 Gov. JB Pritzker at a podium.
Andrew Campbell
Capitol News Illinois
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker speaks at an event in Bloomington on Tuesday to officially announce the statewide launch of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which provides monthly books to children under five regardless of their income.

Illinois families with infants and toddlers now have access to free children’s books that can be sent directly to their home, regardless of their income.

Gov. JB Pritzker on Tuesday announced the official launch of the state’s partnership with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a program founded by the country music legend in 1995 in her home county in east Tennessee. It now sends free books every month to nearly 3 million children in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland.

“Today, I couldn't be prouder to announce that the Imagination Library is working with the state of Illinois to begin our journey to provide every child under the age of five an opportunity to receive a free book delivered to them every single month,” Pritzker said at an event at the Bloomington Public Library.

Pritzker first announced in June that the state had formed a partnership with the Dollywood Foundation, Parton’s philanthropic organization, after Illinois lawmakers included $1.6 million in this year’s budget to fund the state’s share of the program. Other funding comes from the Dollywood Foundation and local, county-based organizations.

Since then, about 44 local programs have been operating in the state, serving roughly 4 percent of eligible children. But Dollywood Foundation executive director Nora Briggs said the goal is to reach all of the estimated 755,000 children under age 5 in Illinois.

“We know that nothing is more basic, more essential, more foundational to a child's success in life than the ability to read,” Briggs said. “The research is clear. We cannot wait until kindergarten for children to have access or exposure to books. It must happen early. It must start in the home environment. And reading at home requires books.”

People who are interested in enrolling their child in the program can find their local provider on the “check availability” tab located at imaginationlibrary.com. From there, applicants submit basic information including their address, their child’s name and date of birth, and the parents’ information.

Once a child’s eligibility is approved, they will start receiving one book each month, addressed to them. Each child within an age group receives the same monthly book. Books on the distribution list are chosen by a panel of early childhood literacy experts who review potential titles for inclusion in the distribution list.

In addition to funding the Imagination Library program this year, lawmakers also approved Pritzker’s “Smart Start Illinois” initiative that will provide $250 million this year for early childhood programs, including expanded access to preschool, wage support for child care workers, early intervention programs, and home visiting programs.

“We're making our mark on every aspect of early childhood, and working with Dolly Parton's Imagination Library literacy efforts will begin now at the earliest ages,” Pritzker said. “Illinois is well on its way to solidifying our status as the number one state in the nation to raise young children.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Peter Hancock is a Capitol News Illinois reporter based in Springfield, Illinois.