Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. Take Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. She wanted ‘to do something nice for the folks in my home county [Tennessee]. I wasn’t thinking on a larger scale,’ she says. But her idea to send a free book every month to every child enrolled in her scheme from the moment of birth right up until the age of five has now taken off and is reaching children across Australia, America and Canada. Four years ago she arrived in the UK to launch it in Rotherham, south Yorkshire, at the invitation of the local council. From sending out just 2,300 books each month when the scheme began 12 years ago, 700,000 children are now part of Dolly’s library.
Sarfraz Manzoor’s incisive Radio 4 programme How Dolly Got Rotherham Reading (produced by Mark Rickards) questioned how much this is just another publicity stunt by the country-and-western star, who has never been shy of promoting her brand. All the books are stamped with Dolly’s personal logo, a butterfly, and every child receives a personal message from Dolly. The scheme, too, is a ‘franchise’ operation, other places replicating the idea with advice from Parton’s foundation but with funding from sponsorship deals they have looked for themselves.
Manzoor talked to Dolly at her extraordinary ‘Dollywood’ theme park in Tennessee, complete with a mock-up of the ‘wooden shack’ that was her childhood home in the Smoky Mountains. But he also went in search of participants at a literacy conference, who were asking the question, how do children gain that first phonemic awareness? He talked as well to parents whose children have been receiving books as part of the scheme: have they made a difference?
Many of Parton’s relatives never went to school; they were too poor and the children were needed to help out on the land.