Dolly Parton Program Offers Free Books to Oklahoma Children 5 and Under


A $2.5 million expansion of country music icon Dolly Parton’s literacy program could offer a free book every month to every Oklahoma child ages 5 and under.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which previously served parts of rural Oklahoma, is now expanding county by county.

Oklahoma’s Department of Education announced Tuesday that it has earmarked $2.5 million in federal stimulus funds to cover half the $2.10 cost per child to bring the program to all 77 counties. of State. Federal aid will support the program until 2024.

Local affiliates — like nonprofits, school districts, or businesses — must contribute $1.05 per child to open the program to children in their county.

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All children birth to age 5 in eligible counties can sign up to receive a free book in the mail each month, regardless of household income.

“Together, let’s inspire a love of reading and learning in every child in Oklahoma,” Parton said in a statement.

Parton’s Dollywood Foundation organizes book selections, negotiates warehouse prices, and mails the books monthly to enrolled children around the world.

“We know that nothing is more fundamental, more essential, more fundamental than a child’s ability to read,” said Nora Briggs, Imagination Library’s executive director for North America.

Children in Tulsa County already qualify with a pledge from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, as do families in Muskogee and Cherokee counties with a game from Lake Area United Way. Registration is open to any child under the age limit who is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation.

The imaginative library programs that already exist in Oklahoma will continue as the state aims to bring the initiative to 264,000 children ages 5 and under.

Oklahoma Public Schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister reads with students Tuesday at Educare Early Childhood School in Oklahoma City after announcing the statewide expansion of the Imagination Library by Dolly Parton.  The library program would provide one free book per month to any Oklahoma child ages 5 and under in eligible counties.

Public Schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the program could play a “vital role” in helping prepare Oklahoma children for success in kindergarten.

Hofmeister on Tuesday announced the statewide expansion of Imagination Library at Educare Oklahoma City, the flagship early childhood school for Sunbeam Family Services.

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Sunbeam is exploring becoming a local Imagination Library affiliate, but other groups would need to fundraise to open the program to all young children in Oklahoma County, said Paula Gates, Sunbeam’s program director. .

Sunbeam primarily serves poor families who may not have room in their household budget to purchase books, Gates said.

“Success in school depends on a high-quality experience from birth to age 5, and it starts at home,” Gates said. “Bringing books into the home for kids absolutely puts them on a trajectory for a more positive experience from elementary school through high school, and then hopefully college.”

Multiple studies show that reading to young children and involving parents have a positive impact on the development of early literacy skills from birth to age 5, according to the National Early Literacy Panel.

Parton founded Imagination Library in 1995 in honor of her father, who could neither read nor write. The program first provided books to children in the original Parton County in Tennessee before expanding to other states, Native American communities and foreign countries.

The State of Tennessee was the first to expand the initiative statewide in 2004. Oklahoma joins 10 states and Washington, D.C. in committing to provide access to the program at scale of State.

A 2020 bill by Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore, and Senator John Haste, R-Broken Arrow, encoded the Imagination Library Fund into state law and directed the Department of Education to the state to oversee it.

For the first time in more than a year, Lake Area United Way could enroll new families in its local Imagination Library program, said Jenny Jamison, the organization’s executive director.

Jamison said registrations were closed in Muskogee and Cherokee counties due to limited funding, but the organization incorporated several new families once it received matching dollars from the state.

“I believe in the difference stories make, especially in the lives of those who weren’t getting books,” Jamison said. “Having a book in your hand…nothing can replace that. There is no software that will replace books in the hands of young children.”

Journalist Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education statewide in Oklahoma. Do you have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at


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