Dolly Parton is a lot of things to a lot of people. She is a singer-songwriter, an actress, a humanitarian, a business owner, a humorist, and, probably, East Tennessee’s most celebrated living resident.
But Dolly Parton is famous in the Pawloski household for an altogether different reason: She is their children’s librarian.
Dolly Parton (Courtesy: Eva Rinaldi/Creative Commons)
Not long after Nick and Serena Pawloski moved to the village of Hopkins in Allegan County six years ago, a neighbor told Serena she could enroll her 1-year-old daughter, Tesla, in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and get one free age-appropriate book mailed to her every month until she turned 5.
It sounded too good to be true until Serena also saw posts about how to enroll a child in the early literacy program on social media. A copy of the classic picture book “The Little Engine That Could,” by Watty Piper, arrived in the mailbox a few weeks later. Tesla received about 40 books through the program before she turned 5 two years ago.
Brother Niko, now 5, also received books monthly until he aged out of the program. Now, brothers Jericho, 3, and Edison, 1, receive books through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.
New local partner
Last fall the Allegan County Community Foundation became the library’s partner affiliate in Allegan County. Partner affiliates enroll children, manage mailing lists, and locally raise $2.80 per book to help cover costs and shipping. Previously, the initiative was directed locally by the United Way of Allegan and Ottawa Counties.
Jericho, 3, Pawloski reads.
“We have received duplicates of ‘The Little Engine That Could’ and Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of Many Colors,’ which I assume they mail to each child,” Serena Pawloski says. “[Duplicates] don’t happen that often, and we don’t mind. As many times as I’ve read “Coat of Many Colors” to my kids, I’ve yet to read it without getting teary-eyed.”
It was 1995 when Parton, through her Dollywood Foundation, started gifting one book each month to infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in Sevier County, Tennessee, where she grew up. The Imagination Library has its roots in the belief that reading to children regularly in their early years will better prepare them for kindergarten.
Parton credits reading and a lifelong love of books for inspiring children to “dream more, learn more, care more and be more,” according to the Imagination Library’s website, imaginationlibrary.com
Boosting reading around the world
With this library, Parton says she hopes to honor her father — a farmer and construction worker — who was wise and hardworking but never learned to read. Parton, the fourth-born of her parents’ 12 children, says she believes she and her siblings would have benefited if their parents had books in the home and the time, energy, and ability to read to their children.
The Imagination Library quickly flourished beyond East Tennessee to become one of the largest early literacy programs on the planet. It operates in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia.
By December 2023, almost 2.9 million children were on the mailing list and more than 226 million books had been gifted. About 2.6 million titles are mailed each month. according to imaginationlibrary.com
Through public and private partnerships, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is now a statewide program in at least 18 states, including Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
A child enrolled in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library at birth would own 60 books by the time he or she turned 5. The Pawloski family uses one bedroom in their home as a library. Bookshelves line one wall, and a comfy couch scattered with quilts makes reading a cozy experience.
Even when all three boys were enrolled in the program at once, no more than one book was in a single mail delivery, Pawloski says. Each child gets a thrill out of “unwrapping a present” addressed to him, usually with wide-eyed siblings looking on.
A committee of teachers, librarians, and reading specialists reviews hundreds of books each year for the Dollywood Foundation and recommends a diverse group of 12 for each age group. A third of the titles are new each year to keep the collection fresh and to help assure that families with multiple preschoolers won’t receive too many duplicates. The foundation also negotiates with publishers to achieve the lowest possible price for a special printing of each title, according to the website.
Other sources of books
In addition to books from the Imagination Library, the Pawloskis frequently borrow picture and board books from libraries in Hopkins, Allegan, and New Salem. Serena says she loves Friends of the Library book sales, where she can buy donated books or books culled from the library’s collection at bargain prices.
Young children are still learning how to handle and care for books, so lost books, and torn and scribbled-on pages do happen. But when a book is lost or damaged, “it’s less stress on parents if it’s only your loss, and not a book that has to be replaced, so others can read it,” Pawloski says.
“Usually we read in the afternoon, but sometimes we start our day that way,” Pawloski says. “Occasionally I read to all four kids together. But it’s easier — and kind of nicer for me — to read to them individually. Each child feels special when it’s their turn to read with Mom. That way we can also choose a book that’s right at their level.”
Serena Pawloski reads Tiger to Jericho, 3, and Edison, 1,.
Her boys especially like books designed to build vocabulary. Typically, there are pictures of similar items, like trucks, with word labels beneath each picture, such as fire truck, dump truck or snowplow.
The Pawloski kids also enjoy simply told books — fiction and nonfiction — that have interesting characters and eye-catching artwork. A few family favorites are “Little Owl’s Night” by Divya Srinivasan, “Little Loon and Papa” by Toni Buzzeo and Margaret Spengler, “Big Red Barn” by Margaret Wise Brown and Felicia Bond, “Jazzy in the Jungle” by Lucy Cousins, “Drop: An Adventure Through the Water Cycle” by Emily Kate Moon, and “Home for a Bunny” by Margaret Wise Brown and Garth Williams.
"I loved books as much as a child as I do as an adult,” says Stephanie Calhoun, Allegan County Community Foundation executive director. Her favorite book series was C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia.” She still owns the set her Aunt Karen gave her as a child and has re-read them many times.
When the oldest of Calhoun’s children was tiny, Stephanie and her husband were still working toward bachelor's degrees. “We would read our textbooks out loud to her,” Calhoun recalled. “It was a great way to get homework done and keep her entertained. With the right tone, all books can be interesting when read out loud.”
Dr. Seuss books were hands-down Calhoun’s favorite read-alouds, though. At one point she says she could recite “Green Eggs and Ham” without opening the book — and maybe still can.
“I love the library, but I also love having my own books in my own home to read over and over,” Calhoun says. “That’s why I felt it was an important piece of supporting early literacy efforts to ensure all children in Allegan County have access to their very own books.”
Working with Allegan Area Educational Services Agency
Calhoun says the Allegan County Community Foundation is collaborating with Superintendent Bill Brown of the Allegan Area Educational Services Agency as partner affiliates in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.
Keeping Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library going in Allegan County is important, Brown says, because the county is predominantly rural and many families don’t have easy access to a big selection of books.
“Immersing a child in a literacy-rich environment from birth can be a stronger predictor of literacy and academic achievement than family income," Brown says.
The shift in affiliate designation between agencies should be unnoticed by Allegan County parents with children enrolled in the program.
To register an Allegan County child for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, or to make a donation to help fund the program, visit www.alleganfoundation.org/imagination-library/
. Donations may also be mailed or dropped off at the Allegan County Community Foundation, 112 Locust St., Allegan, MI 49010.