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Dolly Parton’s free books program to expand statewide in Virginia

Del. Coyner listens on the floor
Shaban Athuman
VPM News File
Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, listens on Wednesday, January 31, 2024 at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia.

The country singer’s Imagination Library will offer children up to the age of 5 one free book a month through the mail.

“The Little Engine That Could” left an indelible mark on singer Dolly Parton.

She loved the classic tale of perseverance so much as a child, the country singer wanted it to be the first book kids receive when they sign up for Dolly Parton's Imagination Library.

Building strong, early literacy skills has been a top priority for Del. Carrie Coyner (R–Chesterfield) since taking office. And it’s why she introduced legislation to expand the free books program in Virginia.

In 2022, she also filed House legislation that led to the Virginia Literacy Act, which provides reading resources and funding to schools to bolster reading skills. The program supports students through eighth grade because of a Senate version of the proposal, sponsored by Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D–Portsmouth).

Coyner saw another “amazing opportunity” to help Virginia’s youngest learners before this year’s General Assembly session. So, she introduced legislation to broaden the Imagination Library program beyond the localities in the state where it’s already up and running.

“We know their brains are developing the most from birth through age 3, and so that’s really where it came from — out of my absolute love for early literacy and knowing our efforts that we put in with our youngest learners really pay off dividends in the long run,” she said.

Prior to Coyner’s bill, Virginia-based nonprofits and community organizations partnered with the library foundation to send books through the mail, aiming to build childrens’ personal libraries.

“It’s costing them about $26 per child per year to do that,” Coyner said. “When you run a statewide program, we’re able to put in matching funds either through large private donors or the state can put dollars in. We can bring that cost down to as low as $13 per child per year.”

By receiving 50% matching funds, community organizations and nonprofits can distribute books to more kids in Virginia. Right now, there isn't a set amount of matched funds for the state, but text from the bill states that money “appropriated for the Program shall be allocated to affiliates that agree to a dollar match for the purposes of the Program.”

Coyner modeled her bill off of Tennessee’s, which was put in place in 1995. Parton’s library program got its start in Sevier County, where she grew up, sending free books through the mail to children from birth up to age 5. To date, the initiative has sent out more than 235 million free books to children across the world.

Some research touted by the program has shown positive impacts on children's early literacy development. The initiative also has had a positive impact on families, helping parents and caregivers acquire skills and knowledge, according to the studies.

“Early literacy and readiness for kindergarten really is a holistic approach,” Coyner said “You need really strong early childhood education and care. You need parents and caregivers who have in their home libraries and environments where kids hear words, vocabulary and sounds. All of that combined is what we know research says makes kids ready to learn when they show up for kindergarten.”

Children registered with the Imagination Library from birth will receive up to 60 books, free of charge, until they're 5 years old. The last book children receive from the program is “Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come!

Coyner’s legislation was signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin at the end of March, and the statewide program is expected to roll out around July 1.

Meghin Moore is a VPM News editor. She's a Penn State graduate with a background in broadcast and digital journalism. Previously, she worked at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.
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