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Country Music Legend Dolly Parton’s New Role: ‘Book Lady’

August 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Country music legend Dolly Parton has delivered nearly 50 million free books to children's homes. Called Imagination Library, the program started in 1996 in one one rural Tennessee county and has spread to 1,400 communities across the United States, England and Canada. Special correspondent for education John Merrow reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: Dolly Parton’s longtime passion project, passing on the gift of reading.

The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has the story.

JOHN MERROW: Most of you are probably familiar with Dolly Parton, but to some, Parton is more than a country music star.

DOLLY PARTON, Imagination Library: Everywhere I go, the kids call me “the book lady.”

JOHN MERROW: The book lady? It’s not surprising to these children.

CHILD: I love reading books. Reading is my favorite thing

CHILD: My favorite was “Tortoise and the Hare.”

CHILD: No, “David and David Goes back to school.”

JOHN MERROW: Where do the books come from?

CHILD: Dolly Parton.

CHILD: Dolly Parton.

CHILD: Dolly Parton sent me the books.

JOHN MERROW: In 1996, Dolly Parton created what she calls the Imagination Library to send free books to homes like this one.

MADELYN, Pigeon Forge, Tenn.: I like this once because it reminds me of my grandma.

MAE LEA BARKER, Grandmother: If she hadn’t had those books, she wouldn’t have had anything until she started kindergarten.

JOHN MERROW: Madelyn and her great-grandmother, Mae Lea Barker, live in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

MAE LEA BARKER: Maddy was a — she very quiet when she was little because she was just moved around so much. She would always either have to be with her mother or her father. And I think the books, she carried them with her a lot of times. I mean, that was hers. She had something that she could call hers.

CHILD: The little girl has a great imagination like me. She thinks of a monster. It’s a green monster right here. And the granny tells her not to worry.

DOLLY PARTON: We send these books to them in their little name, with their name on it. They look forward to go into the mailbox. This is theirs. This is mine. So I am going to either learn to read it, or I’m going to make somebody teach me how to read it.

JOHN MERROW: It all starts here, at birth. At this hospital in her hometown of Sevier County, Tenn., every newborn gets a free book.

WOMAN: I have been here three-and-a-half years at LeConte in the labor delivery, and I have given probably 500 books to new moms.

JOHN MERROW: Families in Sevier County can also sign up at the library. Each child receives 60 free books, one every month, until age five.

DOLLY PARTON: It really, really started out as a very personal thing for me. And it was originally just meant for the folks in my home county because of my dad. There were not books in our house growing up. And my dad could not read nor write. It was a very crippling thing for him. My daddy was such a brilliant man.

JOHN MERROW: What started in one rural Tennessee county 17 years ago has spread to 1,400 communities across the United States, England and Canada. Each affiliate raises money to pay for books and mailing, $2.00 dollars each. The Imagination Library takes care of the rest, right here, where it all began.

DAVID DOTSON, Dollywood Foundation: Our belief was that, oftentimes, the most powerful things are the most simple things.

JOHN MERROW: David Dotson is president of the Dollywood Foundation. This international organization with a $20 million dollar budget produces and distributes almost 700,000 books a month.

DAVID DOTSON: I think what we are about is the emotional tie to books, that if children love something, they will continue to do it.

WOMAN: Both of the girls are excellent readers, just ahead of where they should be in reading. I think it makes a big difference when you have this huge library of books.

There’s so much to choose from. I don’t know that we would be able to afford to buy all of those books for our children. And it’s nice to know that we don’t have to make that decision. We don’t have to choose between a book and something else for the kids. It’s just — that just comes to our mailbox.

JOHN MERROW: The value of reading to children is well-documented. Kids who have books in their homes and are read to regularly are more likely to succeed in school.

REBECCA SMOCK, Teacher, Pigeon Forge Elementary School: We can definitely always tell if a child’s been read to at home. Their vocabularies are so much larger.

JOHN MERROW: Rebecca Smock teaches pre-K at Pigeon Forge Elementary School.

REBECCA SMOCK: What do you use with a hammer?

CHILD: To nail.

REBECCA SMOCK: Nail, that’s right.

I think if you see if that literacy is a big deal at their house, then they’re going to really — they just kind of embrace that more when they come to school. And they’re ready for it.

Where is he sleeping?

CLASS: In the flower.

REBECCA SMOCK: In the flower.

DOLLY PARTON: The older I get, the more appreciative I seem to be of the book lady title. It’s makes me feel more like a legitimate person, not just a singer or an entertainer. But it makes me feel like I have done something good with — with my life and with my success.

JOHN MERROW: Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has now given children almost 50 million free books.