The darker her backdrop, the brighter Dolly Parton seems to shine.
In a turbulent, divisive year, when Parton has won praise for her support of Black Lives Matter and her surprise contributions to coronavirus vaccine research, it feels like an unexpected gift that the 74-year-old is releasing a new book and Netflix Christmas special — both out this month.
“I’ve been doing a lot of promotion for that,” she said over the phone from her Nashville home in August. “I’m also doing some different branding things — trying to put out a line of perfume and makeup and things.”
Parton’s recent swirl of interviews and talk-show appearances is timed to sell products, but also ideas. Her music, acting, writing, licensed merchandise and Tennessee theme park, Dollywood, have long served to support her charity work — which is part of why Parton’s many-tentacled ventures retain such a sweet, singular persona.
It just so happens that a lot of new people took notice in 2020. That’s fine with Parton, who is reflecting much of the renewed attention back toward her beloved nonprofit causes.
Since 1995 — longer than some of her fans have been alive — one of Parton’s missions has been to mail a free book to every child who wants one, regardless of family income, each month from birth until they begin school (usually around age 5). After slowly building the program and winning awards from the Library of Congress and others, Parton’s Imagination Library nonprofit celebrated huge gains in Colorado, Ohio and other states this year.
“There are some dreams you dream, and you hope for the best, but I started this program when my father was still alive — and I started it because of him,” said Parton, who’s also celebrating the 25th anniversary of her Dollywood Foundation in 2020. “My father never learned to read or write, and he felt very handicapped by that.”
Parton’s identity was forged, in part, by childhood poverty. Born in a one-room cabin along Tennessee’s Little Pigeon River, she was one of 12 kids who grew up with a hard-working but illiterate dad. His business and farming acumen — something she’s credited with her own success — didn’t stop him from feeling held back in life.
“I got my dad involved in (Imagination Library) and he got to live long enough to see it. He got such a kick out of the kids calling me ‘The Book Lady,’ ” she said with a laugh. “At the time it was just in my hometown, and I thought maybe I could expand a few counties over. And then, (Tennessee) Gov. Phil Bredesen, who was in charge a little later, checked out the program and then it went statewide. The next thing you know, we’re all over the world.”
Parton makes it sound easy, especially in recent interviews with Oprah and others, where she’s followed a similar script. But building the nonprofit has required her constant involvement over the years. Parton and her foundation partners have lobbied local, state and international governments for support, given that local Imagination Library programs rely on a mix of community, public and private funding.
If there’s anyone who knows how to sweet-talk, it’s Parton. As of late 2020, there are about 2,000 Imagination Library affiliates serving 1.7 million children in the United States, Canada, the U.K., Australia and Ireland. They mail one new, free book each month to any child who registers at imaginationlibrary.com and lives within their area of coverage.
Imagination Library officials estimate they send out a children’s book, on average, every 2 seconds, with more than 147 total million books distributed. Children (and families) don’t pay anything, including any of the 12,000 registered kids across 27 programs in Colorado. But Imagination Library requires local support and donations to meet the needs of individual communities.
Over the summer, Parton fired off a savvy video greeting to Gov. Polis and state Sen. Jeff Bridges for cementing Imagination Library in Colorado with Senate Bill 185. Polis had signed it into law on July 10, directing $50,000 from the general fund and requiring the state librarian to help Imagination Library expand to every city and county in Colorado. The bill allows the Colorado Department of Education to “seek, accept, and expend gifts, grants, or donations from private or public sources” to support the nonprofit.
“And we’ve still got some work to do,” Parton said in the video, leaning into the camera beside a citrus-colored bouquet in her crisp, black Western shirt. “But we’re gonna get there.”
“I love Colorado,” Parton said via phone when asked about the future of the program here. “I love all the people there and I’m so excited about the fact that it’s going statewide. I just want to encourage people to stay behind it and fund it, because we couldn’t do any of this without local organizations making it their own.”
Lest that sound rehearsed, and after a comfortable pause, she added: “Of course, I’m always there to do my part. Gov. Polis and Sen. Bridges have been really, really good at helping us out.”
Parton’s nonprofit work is not for lack of other things to do. Her Netflix special, “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on The Square,” began screening on Netflix Nov. 22.
There’s a documentary, “The Library That Dolly Built,” about Imagination Library that will stream worldwide on Facebook starting Dec. 9. And her richly detailed new book, “Songteller: My Life in Lyrics,” is available as of Nov. 17, letting fans inside her lyric-writing process for 175 classics.
Still, the pandemic has generated a crush of new interest in Imagination Library, Parton said, including a record 78,000 worldwide registrations in August.
“We knew it was a good time to do whatever we could to help children stuck in their houses,” she said. “There have been a few things we had to move around, cancel or postpone, like the big New York premiere for our documentary, but it’s business as usual as far as Imagination Library is concerned.”
The feedback Parton gets from Imagination Library has kept her energized on the project, she said, knowing that so many kids get to sprint to the mailbox every month and open up a package with their name on it.
But she also realizes the limits of the program, which is why, “Anytime we can think up little fun stuff for the kids, we try to,” she said.
“When the program runs out, usually when they’re 5 or so, I get so many letters from the kids,” she said. ” ‘Please keep me on! Keep sending books!’ So we know children love this.”
Twenty-five years on, Imagination Library is more important than ever to Parton and the kids it serves, she said. That may explain the personal touch she’s been bringing to it.
“And now with people trapped in houses?” she said. “That’s why I’ve been reading books to children at night on YouTube.”
This content was originally published here.