Best Books for Kids

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library – Inspiring a Lifelong Love of Reading

recommended by Marion Gillooly

Dolly Parton is an iconic singer and songwriter, but many children around the world know her as their librarian. Through the Imagination Library she nurtures a love of books in young children. Marion Gillooly, Executive Director, The Dollywood Foundation UK, talks us through the background of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library and highlights five of her favourite books in the catalogue (which she admits was really hard: "all the books are my favourites").

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

Buy all books

Would you like to introduce the origin of the Imagination Library?

Yes, of course. Dolly Parton set up The Dollywood Foundation in 1988 and initially supported high school students to stay in school until graduation. The background to it is that in Dolly’s home county, the high school dropout rate was significant. And she has always been very keen to give back to the community where she grew up and to support people living there. If you know anything about Dolly, you’ll know that she’s still very close to her roots, her family, and supports the area where she grew up very robustly. So, she started supporting young people to graduate from high school. High school students were buddied together. They supported each other to stay in school, and if they both graduated they received a money gift from Dolly to say thank you for your efforts. To this day, Dolly supports scholarships for high school students in Sevier County.

Through running that programme, Dolly became aware that actually – and this is something that we know in general in education – what’s really important is supporting children before they start school, so they are already engaged with learning. So that’s how the Imagination Library came about. Initially, it was a gift from Dolly to children in Sevier County, Tennessee.

I read that her father didn’t learn to read or write. That must have really inspired her as well.

That absolutely inspired her, and she knew that her father could have done so much more if he had been able to read and write. The family struggled financially, and her father worked very hard. She has said he was an incredibly intelligent man, but never learned to read or write. So the Imagination Library was really set up in honour of her father. And to give children the best possible chance to be able to learn to read and to enjoy books, because Dolly has always been a reader and she has always been a dreamer. She wants to support children to dream big, and to achieve whatever they want to achieve in life. And she recognises that without literacy skills, without the ability to read, it’s very difficult to achieve those things. And so that’s the origin of the Imagination Library.

“It’s about enjoyment of books”

That was in 1995, and it was so well received that it started to grow and went from one county to another. And then the Governor of Tennessee, in 2004, made a commitment to supporting all of the counties in the State to deliver the Imagination Library so that any child in Tennessee under the age of five can be registered to receive books from the Imagination Library. There are now five fully running statewide programmes in the United States and more to come.

And now the Imagination Library is international.

Yes, it has become an international programme. Across five countries (USA, Canada, UK, Australia and Ireland) we reach 1.8 million children every month. The reason it’s been able to grow to such a degree is that it’s delivered as a local programme, in partnership with local organisations and individuals. And we have an exclusive partnership with the publisher Penguin Random House.

Can you explain how it works?

The design of the Imagination Library is that children from birth to the age of five are given a book every single month. Dolly is absolutely clear that there should be no cost to families in this and no child should be treated differently from any other. This is a universal and inclusive programme that is for any child living in a community. Children are sent a book through the mail, addressed to them, a gift from Dolly every month.

But the way it functions in the UK, for example, is not that every child is included?

We have specific communities within the UK, and we give books to all children from birth to age five in participating communities.

So it’s up to the community to decide to be involved?

Yes, absolutely. We currently have about 45,000 children who receive a book every month in the UK. They live in all parts of the UK in communities where local programmes have been established. We have some programmes where, rather than a geographical community, we reach a specific community of children.

I read that in Scotland the Imagination Library is delivered to all children in foster care.

In Scotland – and there is also a programme in England like this – there’s a programme for all care experienced children from birth to age five. Many of these children are in foster care. That programme covers all 32 local authorities in Scotland, and is a partnership between The Dollywood Foundation, Scottish Book Trust, and the Scottish Government.

Does that affect the book selection? Do you select the same books for the whole programme, or does it depend on the community and you adapt it to local tastes?

That’s a really good question. We have separate book selection processes for the different countries. And we have six age groupings that we look at to select age appropriate books from the year the children are born until the year they turn five.

Do you think the Imagination Library will continue to expand?

Yes I do. There is huge potential for growth, and we are regularly approached by people who want to work with us in their communities. Certainly, our longer term vision is absolutely we want this programme to grow significantly.

“Across five countries…we reach 1.8 million children every month”

And for me, I’d love to see the Imagination Library available to any child living anywhere in the UK. You asked about the care experienced children, and the ideal would be that those children received the books because every child in the community can receive the books. We know that the best way to reach children who are, in some way, classed as vulnerable or disadvantaged is to reach any child, because we never know who’s facing disadvantage. We would get that wrong if we tried to categorise children according to whether they ‘need’ to receive free books. So that’s very much where Dolly is coming from. Dolly says herself, she didn’t know she was poor, until people told her she was poor. The stigma that’s attached to poverty and being in need is something that we don’t want to apply. We want this to be an inclusive programme. So my dream is that every child in the UK could, if their parents wanted them to, be signed up to the Imagination Library.

So it’s not that a local government has to do it?

Not necessarily, it could be anybody, it could be a local business, it could be a volunteer in a community, it could be a charity. It can be something that can start by just the passion of a parent to share the joy of reading with his or her own children and their friends and their neighbours and set this up in the community.

Do you have any kind of special needs books?

At the moment in the UK we don’t. We did have a pilot programme of publishing some of the books in Braille, and that’s something that we’re really keen to revisit. But for the moment, the books are printed in English, and we don’t have any dual language books in the UK either. But what we do take great care of is that we select books that are accessible, and that the pictures can tell the story or that the books are exciting enough without necessarily reading the words on the page.

So the children can enjoy the books even if an adult doesn’t read for them?

Absolutely, the children can enjoy them on their own. Also, if the adult isn’t a confident reader, or if the adult doesn’t have English as a first language, they may not be confident in reading the English language, but can still share the story with the child. And actually we’ve had feedback that adults who are themselves trying to build on their English skills have found the books really helpful.

Apart from a good story with strong illustrations, is there anything special that you look for in the books you select?

That’s the first thing. It needs to be a story that draws you in, and the illustrations need to be good. It needs to be well presented, but also engaging, because this programme, while it does improve literacy development in very young children, the mission is to inspire a love of reading.

And not to be teaching them overtly?

Yes, exactly. It’s not about phonics, for example. It’s about enjoyment of books. So we need to be captivated by the books. There are two sides to it. One is that children need to be able to identify with the content in the books and to be able to see themselves somehow reflected in the books, but also we want to expand their experience. We look for books that will perhaps introduce them to topics or themes that they might not have experienced otherwise. And some of the feedback that we get from parents is around saying we love this particular book, and it’s one that we wouldn’t have chosen if we’d gone to the bookshop or the library with our child. So it’s about helping to give that breadth of variety of choice. And that opens up the world of children’s books to parents as well as to children.

Presumably, you have some books that you keep forever in your list, but some that you try which don’t work as well?

The welcome and graduation books are kept long term. I haven’t chosen the welcome book as one of my five books, because I think most people know The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It’s a classic. That’s the welcome book in the UK. In the other countries it’s The Little Engine That Could, which is a favourite of Dolly’s. When we launched in the UK, we wanted to make sure that people recognise that this is a programme that has been tailored and specifically thought through for children in the UK, that it’s not an American programme that’s being delivered here. It’s important for the children to feel that it’s about them. There’s a welcome message from Dolly inside, and a graduation message in the final book. We take books out usually after they’ve been in the programme for a couple of years, because that allows us to keep it fresh. And it means that if families have more than one child under the age of five, then it’s less likely that the children all receive exactly the same books.

Sleep Tight Very Hungry Caterpillar by World of Eric Carle

Let’s move on to your first pick. Did Eric Carle do this book?

This one is by the publisher, on the theme of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I chose this book because it’s a little book, based on a classic character. Many people are familiar with The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. This one, although it’s not the original text, has got so much in it. In terms of age, this book would be for children who are turning one. It’s a lift the flap book, which little ones always love. It opens up so many opportunities. There’s that whole peekaboo to the animals that are behind the flaps and the physical interaction with the book.

And there’s a little message under each flap.

Yes, so you can have fun with that. And that repetition that young children love, the flap lifted up again and again on the same page until it becomes soft and begins to fall apart. And you can count the owls in the tree, you can look at the colours, you can discuss – even without reading the story – what’s on the page. So it incorporates that interactive game with the person reading the story to the child, it introduces them to different animals, all sorts of things. And you can spot the caterpillar on each page as well and do that whole thing of, ‘Can you see the caterpillar?’ So a whole range of ways of engaging with a child with that little book.

And it’s a bedtime story as well.

Yes, it just kind of encapsulates so much of what the Imagination Library is about, about children having fun learning, learning without knowing they’re learning, through really enjoying the book. And it’s a nice size, a tactile book for a small child. It’s a really nicely done adaptation.

Families, Families, Families! by Suzanne Lang and Max Lang

Let’s talk about your next pick.

This is a terrific way of introducing children to the diverse families that exist and to that whole notion that there is no such thing as a typical family. It’s presented in the way that every page is a family photograph, a framed photograph. And then towards the end, it’s like photos that are stuck on a page. The pictures are engaging, and they draw you in. It’s such a gentle way of explaining to children that you might live in a family that has one parent and one child. But look at that: some families have lots and lots of children in them. And some families have two dads, some families have a mum and a dad. Some families have step brothers and sisters… For children to really experience and think about this book can open up a conversation about all sorts of blended families and different family composition in a really fun way. It’s funny, it’s a bit quirky, and it’s beautifully presented.

The message could sound potentially a bit worthy, but it’s done with a lot of humour.

It is. And that final page there “…if you love each other, then you are a family”, that’s such an important message for children to receive. I love that.

Suzanne and Max Lang are a couple, it seems – she writes and he illustrates. It looks from the illustration style like he’s been doing animation. Let’s move on to your third pick, which won the 2019 Oscar’s Book Prize.

How to Be a Lion by Ed Vere

This is a beautiful, kind of sensory experience, with a textured paper on the cover. It’s a great book about challenging people’s perceptions. It’s a story of acceptance, a story of respect and encouraging children to think for themselves and be themselves. That whole thing about how we make assumptions about what a lion is, and what a lion should do – Leonard the lion is not like that. And his friend Marianne, the duck, is not a friend that you would expect a lion to have. They teach each other, they learn from each other. And they’re gentle, and accepting, and brave – brave in a very different way.

Yes, as I read it I expected that Leonard the lion would have to roar or fight to defend his friend Marianne the duck. But that’s not what they choose to do. The two of them together have this thinking process, about how to try to change the minds of the other lions.

Yes. If you were going to set out to write a book about challenging people’s perceptions, and encouraging children to have the courage to be themselves, I think it’s so creative to take this notion of a lion and a duck, who together work out how they’re going to convince people that it’s okay for them to be themselves. I think it’s a very clever book. This book is for children turning four. There are more words on the page than there are for some of the books for the younger ones. But it’s still a book that is driven by the illustrations. Ed Vere does a lot of draw along sessions. His illustrations are really easy to replicate and he works with children to do it for themselves. He’s a really engaging author. I love the theme of the book and I love the colours, and it speaks to what the Imagination Library represents.

I can see that the illustrations are very expressive. There’s a page with three lions looking very scary. Then, after Leonard and Marianne have had their talk about being tolerant, on the next page one of the fierce lions is fascinated by a couple of butterflies and has completely forgotten to look menacing.

Yes, so simple, and yet, there’s so much in it. It’s a really multifaceted book.

It ends on a question, which is very nice, asking the children, ‘What do you think?’

Yes, that whole thing about leaving it open-ended to talk about with the child is really important.

Look Up! by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola

Let’s talk about your next pick, which won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2020.

This is just a great book, because it has themes around dreaming, being what you can, what you want to be, dreaming big, having ambition and being excited about what’s important to you. Rocket, the main character, is excited about space and she engages with her community to try to get them all to come along to the park to look at the meteor shower.

Her enthusiasm and energy are somehow infectious.

Yes, and you can almost imagine her movement through the book, the way the book is illustrated, it’s a really dynamic illustration. Her enthusiasm jumps out of the page at you. And I love the depiction of her brother, who’s got his nose in his mobile phone the whole time. And so that kind of dual meaning of look up in the title: Rocket wants everybody to look at the sky. But she’s also said to her brother and to the other people around, you’re missing so much by not paying attention to what’s around you. That message around get outside, go and look at what’s there and dream about what you might do, is fantastic. And then towards the end of the book when everybody else has gone home because they think the meteor shower isn’t going to happen, her brother suddenly sees what she’s trying to do, empathises with her, puts his phone down, and they experience the joy of watching the meteor shower together. It’s about sibling love. It’s about dreaming. It’s about helping people see the world around them. There is so much in this book. And it’s very current. I just think it’s a beautiful book. That was a real favourite with the book selection committee when we saw this one.

Rocket is a very strong character, you get the feeling she would be a nice person to be around.

Yes, she’s a girl you’d like to have around, an appealing character.

Just Imagine by Pippa Goodhart and Nick Sharratt

So on to your final selection.

This book is now published as part of the You Choose series. It’s not published for retail anymore as Just Imagine, but it’s still published specifically for the Imagination Library with that title because of the connotation of Just Imagine and the Imagination Library. And so every child turning five, this is the last book that they get.

Is that specific to the UK?

In the USA, the final book is Look Out Kindergarten Here I Come! Our partners in Ireland were very keen to have a book by an Irish author as the graduation book. They selected The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde.

“ It’s important for the children to feel that it’s about them”

I love Just Imagine because it’s so full of colour. It allows the child to take what they want from each page. You can take one picture from any page in this book and create a whole new story. Or talk about your own experience, or talk about which one’s your favourite. Although this book is for children turning five, much younger children love this book as well because it’s so accessible. It’s funny, it’s quirky, it makes them think, it has variety and gives the child control over how they use this book, how they enjoy it. You can pick up this book every day and see something different in it.

And have totally different conversations if you’re reading it with someone.

Yes. And if you particularly wanted to help a child learn about colours, it’s there. Transport, it’s there, animals, flying in the sky and living in the sea, all of that stuff, there’s so much in it. And it’s all so appealing and so accessible.

And you can just go wild with it as well.

Yes, you can take it wherever you want to take it. And the child can take it wherever they want to take it. I have a four year old granddaughter and this is definitely one of our favourites. We spend a lot of time with this book. She just loves it. She can’t read the words on the page yet, but she can talk to me about what’s happening. There’s one where we choose our favourite shoes and outfits and stuff like that. It’s just an enjoyable book.

The mission for our programme is to inspire a love of reading. This book inspires children to really love delving into a book. And for me, it’s the perfect final book to get in the Imagination Library programme. But it’s also fantastic for sharing with younger siblings and friends, and adults love it too. It holds a child’s attention. It’s great to dip into, and it’s special.

I really wish you all the best with this programme, with inspiring children to love reading.

Thanks so much. And thank you for your interest in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

Sign up here for our newsletter featuring the best children’s and young adult books, as recommended by authors, teachers, librarians and, of course, kids.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Marion Gillooly

Marion Gillooly

Dr Marion Gillooly has been Executive Director of The Dollywood Foundation UK since 2018, and leads the Foundation's strategy for delivery of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library in the UK and Ireland. Passionate about books and reading, Marion is committed to giving children the best possible start in life. She has previously held senior roles in clinical research, local and central government, and the voluntary sector. She has a PhD in respiratory pathology.

Save for later
Marion Gillooly

Marion Gillooly

Dr Marion Gillooly has been Executive Director of The Dollywood Foundation UK since 2018, and leads the Foundation's strategy for delivery of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library in the UK and Ireland. Passionate about books and reading, Marion is committed to giving children the best possible start in life. She has previously held senior roles in clinical research, local and central government, and the voluntary sector. She has a PhD in respiratory pathology.