Dolly Parton: Dreams Begin in Books
Updated: Sep 12
“Inspiring kids to love to read became my mission.” – Dolly Parton
“Inspiring kids to love to read became my mission.” – Dolly Parton
I waited over six months for my phone interview with Dolly Parton. When we finally spoke, it felt surreal when she said in her familiar twang, “Is this a girl named Sue?” Talking to this American icon was like having a conversation with someone that I intimately knew but had never met. When she asked me what book I was reading, I told her I would get to that at the end of the interview. With only 15 minutes allotted to question her, I wanted to make sure I didn’t run out of time.
Most people are familiar with Dolly’s multifaceted career. Truth be told, she is almost as well known for her looks as she is for her singing and songwriting. She jokes that “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Her fans have always seen right past the superficial and connected to her heart. And she has a huge one.
One of Dolly’s proudest accomplishments is one of which many devotees are unaware. Inspired by her father’s inability to read or write, Dolly established her Imagination Library program for children living in the county in which she grew up. Her vision was to foster a love of reading among preschoolers by mailing them a specially selected book each month. Today that program spans four countries. Since its inception in 1995, it has given away more than 133 million books.
Dolly’s love of books began with her mother reading her the Bible as they cuddled. She was the fourth child born to her parents, Avie and Robert. Dolly and her eleven siblings were raised in a one room cabin in the hills of East Tennessee. What her family lacked in material things, they made up for in love.
Knowing of Dolly’s spirituality, my first question to her was whether she thought her childhood was illustrative of the Bible verse, Romans 8:28. “And we know that all things work together for the good to those who love God.” On the surface, her father’s illiteracy denoted adversity, but it could be looked upon as a gift in disguise. I wanted to know, had he been able to read, would there be an Imagination Library?
“You know what? That is a very good point! And it is so strange that you quoted that scripture. I swear to you that today I was looking out the window and I was thinking of that very scripture, and for you to repeat it is very odd. But you’re right – if Daddy had been able to read and write, the Imagination Library probably would not have happened.”
Watching her father struggle deeply affected Dolly. She remembers her mother having to sign her school papers because her father was too embarrassed to try and scribble his name on them. Creating a program to support literacy was the best way she could honor him. Robert Parton was prouder of Dolly’s Imagination Library than of any of her other accomplishments. He loved that children referred to her as the “book lady.”
“We thought Daddy was the smartest person in the world, and he was! That’s why I think the Imagination Library meant the world to him. It gave him an outlet. He really had wonderful ideas and input for me because he knew how it felt not to be able to read. We were never ashamed of Daddy. He was sometimes ashamed that he couldn’t read and write but we never made him feel like that ‘cause he was the best.”
Her father’s illiteracy wasn’t the only thing working together for the good in Dolly’s life. In many ways, growing up poor was the perfect setup for her to be the “book lady.” The struggles of her childhood made her keenly aware that not having books in the home often translated into feelings of unworthiness. A child may be brilliant, but without being read to, they will be behind in school. Part of her Imagination Library’s mission is for all children to know that they matter. One of her most famous songs, "The Coat of Many Colors," is about her experience of not fitting in when she was a grade schooler. She feels fortunate to have been surrounded by a love that softened the blow.
“Having such a loving, accepting mother made us all feel special. All little kids were special in our world. If I hadn’t had the good mother I did, ‘The Coat of Many Colors,’ and all the things that we do for kids probably wouldn’t have happened. So I do think that life can be part of a pattern for good for those that do believe.”
Because she is such an advocate for children, it is a little surprising that Dolly and her husband, Carl, never had any of their own. Although, if you look at it from a higher perspective it makes perfect sense.
“I have thought about that often through the years. If I had had children of my own, I probably wouldn’t have been able or willing to be as devoted, and spend as much time with other peoples’ children. So I really do think that was meant to be as well. That, you know, we didn’t have kids so everybody’s kids could be mine.”
(I painted this in 1999. The girls in it were supposed to represent a young Dolly and Oprah.
I knew that, like me, books had been the launching pad for their dreams).
Without being exposed to books, it’s hard to say if Dolly’s career would have unfolded as it did. Books fueled her imagination. They showed her a world that she wouldn’t have known existed without them. She credits them for helping her to dream a bigger dream.
“As a child I loved books.You know, I don’t ever remember learning to read. It just seemed like I always could. Because we were poor and there were so many of us, we didn’t have books outside of the Bible. I used to love the smell of books, the touch of books, and the pictures that I saw in books. I was so fascinated about the world beyond the mountains and just what all that was about. I think books really trigger the imagination of a child. I mean, what could be more exciting than the things that pictures and words can create in a child’s mind?”
Over the years, Dolly has learned that books do more than educate and entertain her. Reading makes an opening for the light to come in. By absorbing the author’s creativity she fuels her own.
“When I read, I think, ‘Oh my gosh! How did they ever think of that?” I’m just amazed at the gift that God has given them. When something they’ve written touches me I think, ‘I hope I can do that with my writing.’ I really try to get into what they’re thinking and where their heart is.”
A big part of Dolly’s success is her ability to see life through the eyes of a child. In 2017 she used that gift to make a children’s album, I Believe in You. All of its proceeds benefit her Imagination Library. On the cover she is pictured in a blue gown with butterfly wings. Butterflies carry a special significance for her. She still recalls wandering off and chasing them in the fields when she was young.
“I always loved butterflies! They were so beautiful and seemed so harmless. They’d just flit around, and I kind of related to them in my own personality, I think. Just trying to be colorful and gentle, and curious. You know the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly is something I identify with. Come out of your shell and shine. Be all the colors you can be! I’m a girl of many colors.”
With that last answer, Dolly was being summoned by her team. My fifteen minutes with her were up. Before disconnecting, I answered her question about what I was reading, “Right now the book on my nightstand is a biography of Joan of Arc. She was a true, true badass. Her connection to God gave her the strength to do what she felt called to do. Kind of like you, Dolly.”
She laughed, “Lord, I’m no saint! I’m a scoundrel and a saint. I don’t claim to be anything other than a person that’s trying to do as much good as they can. I’m more like the ‘Little Engine That Could.’ I thought I could, I thought I could, and I did!”
That must be all it takes. One little, colorful person sharing their light with another and then another and then another…. And before you know it the whole sky is lit up.
Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan