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Dolly Parton's Nonprofit Reaches Milestone With 100 Million Books Sent To Children

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to end this hour with a strange and wonderful moment from earlier this week. It happened in the normally hushed Great Hall of the Library of Congress here in Washington, D.C. NPR's Maureen Pao was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) In my coat of many colors that my momma made for me - made only from rags, but I wore it so proudly.

MAUREEN PAO, BYLINE: That of course is Dolly Parton. The country music legend was at the Library of Congress this week because she's also known as the book lady - a champion of early childhood literacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARTON: (Singing) One is only poor only if they choose to be.

PAO: Parton founded the Imagination Library more than 20 years ago. The nonprofit mails a book a month to children across the country and around the world. In a ceremony surrounded by preschoolers, she marked a big milestone in the program's history - delivery of the 100 millionth book.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARTON: Hello, kiddies. You want me to read a book to you?

PAO: Parton started the Imagination Library as a modest local effort to help children in Sevier County, Tenn., where she grew up. Her inspiration was deeply personal.

PARTON: My dad did not get a chance to go to school. And Daddy couldn't read and write, and it was kind of crippling to him. He was such a smart man, though. He just had such good common sense. They call it horse sense in the country.

PAO: Parton says she was determined to give kids early access to books, something her father never had.

PARTON: I think that if you can read, it gives you wings to fly. Through books, you can see how other people live and what other things there are in the world and all the things that you might become.

PAO: The Imagination Library now reaches more than a million children a month, including 4-year-old August Todd in Washington, D.C.

AUGUST TODD: The "Old Bear And His Cub."

URETTA TODD: Old bear loved his little cub with all his heart.

PAO: His mom, Uretta, says August loves getting his very own book in the mail every month, including some they wouldn't have known about otherwise.

TODD: For example, this one...

AUGUST: And I like dinosaurs.

TODD: ...Or the Dolly Parton "I'm A Rainbow" (ph) - it talks about feelings. There was one talking about ice cream, but it was in English and Spanish.

PAO: The program is available in communities where a local partner has teamed up with the Imagination Library, and it's open to any child 5 and younger. Studies have found that reading aloud to a child not only promotes literacy and a love of reading. It also has lasting cognitive and educational benefits. For the book lady, it's also about the simple pleasures.

PARTON: I still love a real book in my hands. I think there's just something magical about a book - a real book.

PAO: And Dolly Parton says her ambitions for the Imagination Library don't stop at a hundred million books.

PARTON: Were going for a billion maybe in my lifetime (laughter). I'm a big dreamer, you know?

PAO: Maureen Pao, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU CAN DO IT")

PARTON: (Singing) When you're little, you got to think big, got to see everything for what it is. Life is large and a little bit tricky. Things can get a little bit sticky. But you can do it. Use your mind. Stick right to it, and you'll be fine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.