Dolly Parton Will Send Free Books to up to 2,000 Philly Kids Each Month

Residents in one North Philly zip code can now sign up to receive free books from the singer’s Imagination Library program.

dolly parton reading to kids as part of her dolly parton imagination library initiative

Dolly Parton reading to kids in pre-COVID times. (Photo courtesy the Dolly Parton Imagination Library)

Dolly Parton is having a moment. A rather extended one, in fact.

More than 54 years after she released her first album, the music icon is making lots of headlines, whether over her funding of a COVID vaccine or her polite rejection of a statue proposed in her honor at the Tennessee Capitol. Vox just called her a “secular American saint” in this big profile.

And now, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library has just launched in Philadelphia.

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library started in 1995 as an effort to get free books into the hands of young children in the impoverished Tennessee County where Parton was born and raised. Tennessee soon adopted the program statewide. And starting in 2000, Parton’s nonprofit opened the idea up to the world, allowing anybody, anywhere to apply to become an affiliate and start a chapter in their own community. These days, the charity mails out books to more than 1.5 million children each month.

The Philadelphia branch was organized by Foundations, Inc., a Mount Laurel-based educational nonprofit that has worked extensively with schools in Philadelphia. Foundations, Inc. partnered with the Free Library of Philadelphia and the city’s Department of Public Health to get the Dolly Parton Imagination Library up and running in the city.

The rules stipulate that a local affiliate must commit to serving all children between birth and age five within a given city, county or zip code. And after completing some demographic research and coordinating with the city, Foundations, Inc. selected the North Philly zip code 19133, which is shown in the map below. Foundations, Inc. estimates there are about 2,000 children in the covered age bracket within those boundaries.

a map of the philadelphia zip code 19133, which is the first location served by the new dolly parton imagination library in philadelphia

A map of the Philadelphia zip code 19133, which is the first location served by the new Dolly Parton Imagination Library in Philadelphia (Image via Google Maps)

“Philadelphia is gigantic,” says Elizabeth Cieri, Foundation, Inc.’s executive director of teaching and learning. “And we are starting with limited funding, so we chose this one zip code where we could service all the kids. We took a look at poverty levels around the city, and we wanted to really target an area where this literacy program was very needed.”

Here’s how it works. Any family with kids under five living in the 19133 zip code can fill out an online form or sign up using a paper form they can pick up at the Lillian Marrero branch of the Free Library or at the Maria de los Santos Health Center. Within ten weeks, the child will get a free book in the mail, and those books will keep coming each month until the child turns five.

“The whole idea is that we want the books to go to a home early in a child’s life, to create a love for reading at an early age,” explains Christy Crouse of the Dollywood Foundation, the nonprofit that backs the effort. “Dolly has this turnkey model set up. We handle all of the administrative processes. We select the books. And then we align with local affiliates.”

According to Crouse, the local affiliates are responsible for outreach and for covering the cost of each book, which the Dollywood Foundation purchases at below market value. The cost passed down to the affiliate works out to $2.10 per child per month. That comes out to $126 for a child to receive a brand new book each month from the time they are born until they age out at five. And if you choose to make a donation to support the program, you can designate the community you want your money to reach.

The first book a child receives is a customized version of The Little Engine That Could. And then on their fifth birthday, they get a customized version of Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come! In between, the reading list changes each year and is, of course, different depending on the age of the child. This year, older kids will receive My Papi Has a Motorcycle and Blue Sky White Stars, while the organization will send the youngest ones titles like Llama Llama Hide & Seek and I Love My Mommy Because. Each age bracket has multiple bilingual selections available. You can see the full 2021 reading list here.

Cieri says that Foundations, Inc. hopes to expand the coverage area beyond 19133 in coming years. And Crouse notes that since Foundations, Inc. has only targeted this one zip code, another organization or coalition could launch a Dolly Parton Imagination Library in another zip code.

“We will help people do whatever is necessary to expand the footprint of Dolly’s vision,” says Crouse. “We want to get these books out all across the world.”

Philadelphia magazine is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and economic mobility in the city. Read all our reporting here.