Few people — not least celebrities — can unite teenagers and their grandparents, conservatives and liberals, country music lovers and fans of pop ballads like Tennessee superstar Dolly Parton.
“She’s just universally accepted,” Ohio First Lady Fran DeWine said during an interview Monday at the Ohio Governor’s residence. “People understand that she really has something good 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 started 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 intelligent but “felt crippled by the fact that he couldn’t read or write,” she said.
Now, these free books are available for children ages 5 and under around the world, including every county in Ohio. Parton will join DeWine, her husband Governor Mike DeWine and other literacy advocates on Tuesday at Ohio State University’s Ohio Union to celebrate the program’s success so far and push for more participants.
“It is better to give than to receive”:Dolly Parton discusses the legacy of the book program
Free Books for Children in Ohio:How to Sign Up for The Governor’s New Imagination Library
Nearly 328,000 children in Ohio — about 45% of those eligible — currently receive free books each month. The program is available to all children, regardless of family income. The first book delivered is “The Little Engine that Could” and the last 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 contributions from local organizations, such as United Way or Easterseals.
Fran DeWine has championed the early literacy program since Mike DeWine took office in 2019.
“It was an easy sell,” said Fran DeWine as the family dog - a springer spaniel named Dolly after Parton – tucked nearby. “(Lawmakers) realized this was just an amazing way to help our kids prepare for kindergarten.”
Why early reading is important
Reading is an essential skill for success in school and later in life, according to research. But many children enter kindergarten without the tools to succeed, and these delays can follow children throughout their lives.
Nearly two-thirds of fourth-graders in Ohio weren’t reading well in 2019 — a figure that hasn’t changed much in the past decade and mirrors the national average, according to annual KIDS COUNT data released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
But reading to infants and young children can solve some of Ohio’s literacy problems. For example, children in a reading program improved their kindergarten readiness by 15% over the three years, according to a Cincinnati Children study published last year.
Fran DeWine learned the importance of reading in her early childhood development classes at the University of Miami. But she has also seen firsthand how early literacy has helped her eight children and 26 grandchildren.
It was Fran DeWine’s grandchildren who introduced her to Parton’s imaginative library. They tore off the wrapper from the plastic wrap books and begged their grandmother to read to them.
“I saw how thrilled even these kids were to receive a book mailed to them,” she said. “And I thought, ‘That’s so cool. “”
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Years later, Fran DeWine is happy to read books to children in Ohio. (Her favorite book 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 went on to thank Parton for the work she has done to help children learn to read.
Little did she know that Parton would return to Ohio years later to celebrate Ohio’s Library of Imagination. The governor declared Dolly Parton Day in the state on Tuesday.
Fran DeWine didn’t have a say in Parton’s set list for Tuesday, but she does have a favorite. “We all like ‘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 affiliate news organizations in Ohio.