Already a success in about 60 rural Yukon households, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program to send monthly children’s books to preschoolers, is scheduled to make a stop in Whitehorse next January.
Founded in East Tennessee in 1996, the program now serves more than 500 counties in the United States and has recently moved into Canada and the UK. A community wanting to get aboard the imagination library simply pays to cover the cost of books and mailing expenses. Then the Dollywood Foundation, Dolly Parton’s philanthropic arm, takes over, co-ordinating the selection and delivery of books to homes.
After the 2003 International Literary Survey identified rural Yukon communities as a key source of concern for low literacy, the Whitehorse Rendezvous Rotary Club fundraised and campaigned for the program to be adopted in Yukon communities, said Debbie Abbott with the Yukon Literacy Coalition, which co-ordinates the program.
A recent grant from the Yukon Community Development fund has allowed the program to be expanded to include Whitehorse — where it is expected to attract 400 participants.
Expectant parents need only sign up their soon-to-be-born children. Then, every month from birth to when the child turns five, a brand-new, age-specific book will arrive in the mail.
Featuring classics such as The Little Engine that Could and The Hungry Caterpillar, the books follow a set of carefully engineered themes as a child’s development moves forward.
Year one features books with touch-board pages containing simple rhythmic language and bright colours.
By year three, children move on to books that address issues such as fear, conflict, love and safety. They also receive their first wordless books, in which the reader and child work to build their own story.
In the program’s final year, the child has moved on to non fiction science, folk tales and rhymes and poetry.
The fourth of 12 children, Parton grew up “dirt poor” in a dilapidated one-room shack in East Tennessee. With no books or much of anything, it was stories told by friends and family that helped to expand Parton’s imagination and dreams as a child.
“That’s something she really wanted to share with other children,” said Christinona Sturton, a representative for Invest in Kids, a Toronto-based charity acting as the Canadian liaison for the Dollywood Foundation.
“I know there are children in your community with their own dreams,” writes Parton on the imagination library website.
“The seeds of these dreams are often found in books and the seeds you help plant in your community can grow across the world,” she writes.
Research also shows that reading to children is one of the most important ways to stimulate a child’s neurological development.
“Spending time with your child and reading with them stimulates children’s neurological development and prepares them for school,” said Sturton.
The shared act of reading also forges important emotional bonds between parents and children.
“Your heart and your head, it’s good for both,” said Sturton.
The program initially began in Parton’s home county in Eastern Tennessee — before expanding to include areas in Missouri and South Carolina around which Parton had established business interests, such as the Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede dinner theatre.
In 2006, the program moved into Canada, and a year later, it made its first steps into the UK.
The initiative has been particularly key to rural areas, where libraries and bookstores may not be as accessible.
“We want to encourage connections with libraries, but it’s also nice to have that favourite story that you can just reach for,” said Sturton.
“It’s great to have books in the home,” she added.
An official launch is scheduled for January 27, National Family Literacy Day.