Dolly Parton Is The 2020 Southerner of the Year

We're celebrating the country music icon and her inspiring mission to put books in the hands of children around the globe.

Dolly Parton Southerner of the Year for Her Imagination Library
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has more than 1,700 chapters in the United States. Photo: David McClister

Robert Lee Parton, the father of Dolly Parton, never learned to read, but that didn’t stop him from inspiring the most successful children’s book program the world has ever seen. In 1995, as a tribute to him, she founded Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a nonprofit designed to give free books each month to children from birth to age 5. “It was started out of love in my heart for my dad, who was unable to read and write,” she told me in a recent conversation. “When I hear the kids call me ‘the book lady,’ I instantly think of him and just how proud I am of the program and how grateful I am that he was part of it with me.”

Lee Parton was a tobacco farmer, a construction worker, and the father of 12 children, and Dolly adored him. “He was so smart in so many ways,” she recalled, but she also felt that he had missed out on one of the great joys of life by never learning to read. He died in November 2000 but not before he had a chance to see the Imagination Library turn into something much bigger than he or she ever envisioned. “It started in Sevier County,” she said, “and we hoped maybe it would go over a county or two. But when Gov. Phil Bredesen heard about it, he thought it was a great program, and then it went all over Tennessee and the country, into Canada, and on to different places throughout the world.”

As the Imagination Library marks its 25th anniversary, the organization has delivered more than 132 million free books to children in five countries. When a child signs up, the program always starts the same way, with a letter from Dolly and a copy of The Little Engine That Could inscribed with their name. “It’s something for them in the mailbox. It’s important,” she said. The message behind the book is important, too, and it defines her philosophy on life. “That story is so inspirational,” she explained, “and I’m here to shout that there’s a little engine inside all of us that says we can do anything if we just don’t give up. I always think of myself as the little engine that did.

The Imagination Library is just one of many things Dolly has going on. Last fall, she launched a new Netflix series called Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, cohosted the CMA Awards, and was the subject of a successful podcast on New York Public Radio called Dolly Parton’s America. She is celebrating the 35th anniversary of Dollywood, her theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, with a Flower & Food Festival later this spring. And she’s still writing songs, making records, and performing for crowds all over the world. But ask her about the Imagination Library, and she’ll likely say the same thing she told me: “I’m probably as proud of that as anything I’ve ever done or will do in my lifetime.”

Every week, the Imagination Library receives emails and letters from children and parents thanking them for books they couldn’t otherwise afford. The organization has changed lives, and the letters often get very personal. One little girl from Knoxville burst into tears when she learned she had aged out of the program and would no longer be receiving books—a response that was captured and shared widely on Facebook. Dolly told me she gets this kind of reaction a lot, but she had a message for that little girl, as well as any child who “graduates” at age 5: “I’m so proud that you were in the program for all those years and that evidently you got smart enough, big enough, and good enough to realize the importance of it. Now you can read other books, and that’s the whole purpose.” Spoken like a true book lady.

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