Editorial – Dolly’s library comes to IW

Published 4:52 pm Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library’s newest chapter is unfolding right here in Isle of Wight, and we’re just as excited about it as the children who will be receiving free books every month.

A kickoff event is planned for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Smithfield Center, 220 N. Church St. Parents will be able to register their children and receive their first book at the event. 

Local funding for the celebrity singer-songwriter’s national literacy program is courtesy of Smithfield Foods, the community’s anchor employer. State government has also kicked in money to fund an expansion of the program statewide. The Imagination Library delivers one free, age-appropriate book each month to any child under 5 years old who is signed up.

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Since Parton launched the program in 1995, dedicating it to her father, who could not read or write, the library has given away nearly 200 million books in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland. Kids can begin receiving books from the time they are born, so by age 5 a child will have gotten 60 books.

Isle of Wight’s kindergarten and first grade teachers are among those rejoicing the loudest, as kids will show up for school much better equipped to learn. Fittingly the final book every participating child receives is “Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come” by Nancy Carlson.

“Putting more books in the hands and homes of area families will improve the quality of life for everyone,” Ben Neal, director of the Blackwater Regional Library, told the Times’ Stephen Faleski.

Nora Briggs, executive director of The Dollywood Foundation in North America, told Cardinal News that the program’s requirement of local matching funding is by design.

“Dolly truly believes that if you give it away completely free, people won’t value it,” Briggs said. “The piece of local funding means they have skin in the game.” 

Smithfield Foods’ participation comes as part of the DeGood Foundation’s regional expansion of Parton’s Imagination Library. The DeGood Foundation, founded by Kyle DeGood in 2017, is a nonprofit organization that provides Hampton Roads children with “equitable access to positive early childhood experiences.”

A 2022 budget amendment passed by the General Assembly put up $481,180 for one-half of local costs of joining the program. The 2024 state budget, which takes effect July 1, includes an additional $1.15 million for nonprofits like DeGood to help put the program in every community in Virginia.

Declining reading scores by Virginia students on Standards of Learning testing in recent years has reinforced the need for early-childhood literacy.

The first book a child receives from the Imagination Library is “The Little Engine That Could.” Hearing her mom read the story is a favorite memory from Parton’s own childhood – and a metaphor for what’s possible when children develop an early love of reading.