Few people – no less celebrities – can unite teenagers and their grandparents, conservatives and liberals, country music lovers and pop ballad fans quite like Tennessee superstar Dolly Parton.
“She’s just universally accepted,” said Ohio first lady Fran DeWine during a Monday interview at the Ohio Governor’s Residence. “People understand that she has really a goodness about her, and she’s very talented, and she’s very open, and she’s very accepting, and we all love her.”
There’s another reason to love Parton: She’s a champion of children’s literacy.
Parton launched Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in 1995 by sending free books to children in Sevier County, Tennessee, where she was born and raised. She started the program to honor her father, Robert “Lee” Parton, who was very smart but “felt crippled with the fact that he couldn’t read and write,” she said.
Now, those free books are available for children ages 5 and younger across the world – including every county in Ohio. Parton will join DeWine, her her husband dela Gov. Mike DeWine and other literacy advocates Tuesday at the Ohio State University’s Ohio Union to celebrate the program’s success so far and push for more participants.
‘It’s better to give than to receive’:Dolly Parton discusses book program’s legacy
Free books for Ohio kids:How to sign up for the new Governor’s Imagination Library
Nearly 328,000 Ohio children – about 45% of those eligible – are currently receiving free books each month. The program is available to all children regardless of their families’ income. The first book delivered is “The Little Engine that Could” and the final book is “Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come.”
Parton’s Imagination Library offers these books at a fraction of their original cost – $2.10 per child, per month. To pay for the books, Ohio lawmakers allocated $18 million to match what local organizations, such as United Way or Easterseals, chip in.
Fran DeWine has championed the early literacy program since Mike DeWine took office in 2019.
“It was an easy sell,” said Fran DeWine while the family dog – a springer spaniel named Dolly after Parton – nestled nearby. “(Lawmakers) realized that this is just an incredible way to help get our kids ready for kindergarten.”
Why early reading matters
Reading is an essential skill for success in school and later in life, research shows. But many children enter kindergarten without the tools to succeed, and those delays can follow kids throughout their lives.
Nearly two-thirds of Ohio’s fourth graders weren’t reading proficiently in 2019 – a figure that hasn’t changed much in the past decade and mirrors the national average, according to the annual KIDS COUNT data released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
But reading to infants and young children can address some of Ohio’s literacy problems. For example, children in a reading program improved kindergarten readiness by 15% over the three years, according to a Cincinnati Children’s study published last year.
Fran DeWine learned about the importance of reading in her early childhood development classes at Miami University. But she also experienced firsthand how early literacy helped her eight children and 26 grandchildren.
It was Fran DeWine’s grandchildren who introduced her to Parton’s Imagination Library. They would rip off the packaging from the shrink-wrapped books and beg their grandmother to read to them.
“I saw how even these kids were thrilled to get a book addressed to them in the mail,” she said. “And I thought, ‘This is so cool.'”
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Years later, Fran DeWine is happy to read books to children across Ohio. (Her go-to read her is Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”) And she’s happy – if a little nervous – to invite Parton to Ohio.
Fran DeWine first met Parton at a 2016 concert she attended with Mike and their daughter Anna. The now-first lady thanked Parton afterward for the work she did to help children learn to read.
Little did she know that Parton would return to Ohio years later to celebrate Ohio’s Imagination Library. The governor declared Tuesday “Dolly Parton Day” in the state.
Fran DeWine had no say in Parton’s set list for Tuesday, but she does have a favorite. “We all love ‘I Will Always Love You.'”
How to sign up for free books
You can enroll your child by going to ohioimaginationlibrary.org/enroll. The list of books is available at imaginationlibrary.com/usa/book-list.
You can watch a live stream of the event at ohioimaginationlibrary.org/livestream at noon Tuesday.
Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Akron Beacon Journal, Cincinnati Enquirer, Columbus Dispatch and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.