Dear Dolly Parton: An Open Fan Letter

Dear Dolly Parton, I’m a big fan. I love “Islands in the Stream.” Even more, I love your Imagination Library. Thank you for both.

I don’t listen to country music. But I love Dolly Parton. In 1996, she began giving books to children in her hometown. Now, her Imagination Library program delivers books to children throughout Tennessee and in other states, too.  Each month for the first five years of their lives, children receive a free book in the mail.

A book is a lovely gift. But here, it’s a more than a gesture. It’s a difference. This is Tennessee. For those of you not familiar with us, we’re in the mid South. We caught the nation’s attention with the infamous Scopes trial. And when Glenn Miller recorded “The Chattanooga Choo Choo,” with those now uncomfortably racist opening lyrics. And a few years ago when Rhae County commissioners banned gay people.

Tennessee consistently ranks poorly in education. 13% of us are illiterate.1 We have some of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the U.S.2 We lead the nation in meth busts.3 A fourth of our children live in poverty.4

Books can make us better. Reading books at an early age makes for improved education, especially if children share reading experiences with their families. And maybe children who receive books as gifts better appreciate reading and thinking as privilege. That’s what an education – even a lackluster one – promises: young adults with Bachelor’s degrees earn 50% more than those with high school degrees, and twice as much as those without high school degrees.5

More than a move toward state standards and salaries, though, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library delivers an interest in ideas. Reading encourages creativity. Maybe children who watch for books in the mail learn to watch for opportunities and adventures. Maybe they’re the emergent creative thinkers educators and employers hope for. Maybe they’ll find more possibilities and happiness than (very) early pregnancy, meth, and poverty suggest many Tennesseans do now.

And that’s what Parton is after. In her Imagination Library and other philanthropic ventures, she promotes hope and kindness and understanding and joy.

So while I like “Islands In The Stream,” my daughters like Parton’s more recent anthem “I Am A Rainbow” in which she sings, “I’m every color, I’m every hue.” Parton celebrates diversity and acceptance every time she sings. And she does so often. Each Spring, she sends her Dollywood actors to Tennessee’s public libraries to perform free plays based on popular children’s books.  Each performance opens with a video of Parton accompanying the players on “I Am A Rainbow.” In a political climate where gay couples must beg and battle for marriage rights and racism persists at White House dinners, we could use a little more tolerance. Here in Tennessee, and throughout the U.S.

More than another Mae West, Dolly Parton promotes ideas. Not unlike the publicly-owned utility giant TVA that flooded our impoverished state with electricity during the Great Depression, Parton’s flooding us with books and the ideas they offer and inspire.

Thank you, Dolly Parton. I’m a fan.

1 According to the National Center For Education Statistic’s estimates on low literacy.

2 The Center for Disease Control lists us as #13 in the nation for births to 15 to 19 year olds.

3 For more, see a recent Huffington Post article.

4 The latest Annie E. Casey Foundation study ranks Tennessee 42nd in education and identifies 1 in 4 children as being raised in poverty.

5 These numbers on education and income are per the National Center For Education Statistics.


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