“Did I get a book today, Mommy?”
Four-year-old Lexington, of Montgomery County, asks her mother this question almost every day when they pull into the driveway and check the mailbox.
They provide a free book, every month, to Tennessee children from birth through their fifth birthday.
The first book for every child is The Little Engine That Could, and the final selection is Kindergarten Here I Come!
The years between are filled with a dazzling array of titles that introduce children to different cultures, climates and ways of life.
Each one is age-appropriate and carefully curated.
The Imagination Library kicked off in 1995.
Parton had been providing post-graduation cash awards to students in her native Sevier County, then decided that she’d like to help children much earlier in their learning journey.
She hit upon a book giveaway as something that would enable parents and children to spend time together.
Plus it would be a big help to families that didn’t have a nearby library or money to buy their own books.
Never too early
In 2004, Tennessee created the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation to provide funding that brings the Imagination Library to children in every county across the Volunteer State.
The foundation uses grants from a variety of sources, including the State of Tennessee and other partners, to match county-level fundraising.
Those partnerships, along with a steep discount from the publisher, ensure that the books remain free to enrollees.
To date, more than 26 million books have been given to Tennessee children.
In June 2016 alone, 254,000 were delivered.
In addition to being the only statewide book giveaway program in the U.S., Tennessee’s Imagination Library is also the largest, with a monthly book total that is almost one third of the entire U.S. Imagination Library mailings.
“Early childhood literacy is the critical factor for long-term educational success,” says Theresa Carl, president of Books from Birth.
“We are always working to expand our relationships with birthing hospitals, so that newborns can be enrolled before they even leave for home.”
Reading with the Blue Ribbon Committee
Imagination Library books begin their journey months, even years, before delivery in a room at the Dollywood Foundation in Sevier County.
That’s where the five members of what Parton calls the “Blue Ribbon Committee” meet to sort through hundreds of children’s books and put together that year’s reading lists for every age group.
“We have a whole list of variables to look at, based on developmental needs per year,” says committee member Jinx Stapleton Watson, a retired professor of information services whose work at the University of Tennessee included training librarians and school media-center professionals.
“We are very tuned in to what children can handle, what they can absorb, what they can see and what they can understand.”
Watson is quick to say that, in a world of fluffy bunnies and cuddly puppies, the committee isn’t swayed by the cute factor.
“We want to surround them with 60 titles that are excellent, prize-winning pieces of literature,” she says. “We want good text and good illustrations.”
Penguin Publishers was chosen in the Imagination Library’s earliest days as its book supplier.
There are more than 22,000 children’s books published annually, Watson says, so thinning the herd to one vendor made a lot of sense.
“Penguin understood Dolly’s vision of a home library for little ones. They got the magic of it all,” she says.
“Even working with one publisher, we are snowed under with so many titles every year. We read every single book out loud to each other, going around in a circle.
“We read with love and gusto, and if it’s not flying by the second page, we set it aside.”
The committee pays attention to keeping a balance of gender protagonists, children of color, representation from the whole United States, family setups, fiction and nonfiction.
Two of Parton’s books are in the mix, and along with the first and last book, stay in the rotation regardless of what new titles come along.
Parton was adamant from the very beginning that all it would take for parents to enroll their kids was a sheet of paper with a name, address and birthday.
Currently the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation and Imagination Library are working to expand enrollment to hospital maternity wards, county fairs, school events and other public gatherings.
Any parent can register their child in person, by phone or online by visiting the website usa.imaginationlibrary.com.
“Those books start coming, and kids love it,” says Watson.
“Parents tell us they hate to see Kindergarten Here I Come! show up because they don’t want the library to end.”