Enrollments for Dolly Parton’s free library surge after Alabama announced the program

More than 1,000 children will soon begin receiving books from Dolly Parton’s Imaginary Library in Jefferson and Walker counties in 2023.

Governor Kay Ivey on Jan. 18 announced support for a statewide Imagination Library network and more than $4 million in funding.

Better Basics, a Birmingham-based non-profit organization that has been working with the project since 2014, has 762 children enrolled day and night on the same day.

“When I said we stood there and watched the numbers, it was like the world clock,” said Darlene Gray, interim executive director and program director at Better Basics. “They were just, ‘Tick, tick, tick, tick.’

The Imagination Library sends an age-appropriate book to children from birth to 5 years old each month. The program is free. A list of available books can be found here. The registration form for the Better Basics Imagination Library can be found here.

Since working with the Imagination Library, the Better Basics team, dedicated to promoting children’s literacy, has distributed 289,591 books to 28,274 children in Jefferson and Walker counties.

Colorful books line the walls from floor to ceiling in the Better Basics office. They are organized by category from books about the earth, the world, the seasons, nature, to a section called “silly poems”.

A giant banner of Dolly herself greets visitors in the lobby with the words “Inspire a love of reading.”

Dolly Parton's Imagination Library at Better Basics Birmingham

Shelves of books organized by subject and category in the lobby of Better Basics in Birmingham, Alabama on January 26, 2023.

Geovanna Caves coordinates Better Basics’ Imagination Library program and said she was drawn to the position for its reach and impact. Caves, who was a teacher before joining Better Basics, says her new role has taken her from working 20 to 30 kids a year in her classroom to thousands a month.

Caves said it warms her heart to see the impact of the program.

“As a former teacher, when you see these kids who don’t have books, you say, ‘Okay, well, you have to fill out this reading log,’ and they’re like, ‘Well, I don’t have any ‘I don’t have any books at home,'” said you. “It’s good to know that these kids will have tons of books by the time they hit kindergarten or first grade.”

Before Caves joined the team in 2020, the program at Better Basics averaged 150-200 new enrollments each month.

Caves began building partnerships throughout the community, including in hospitals, churches, and daycares.

“I just started going where there was a daycare,” she said.

Since Caves took over the position, the average number of new registrations per month has increased to between 400 and 500. The program currently serves 6,049 children in both districts. Since 2014, 22,225 have completed the program.

Caves also worked to expand the program and was an integral part of Walker County’s inclusion, Gray said.

Development and administration coordinator Connor Cranford said “one is a singular number,” but the impact of a book builds over time each month, especially for children whose parents may not have the means to buy them new books, or who Means of transport to get to a library.

“One in five lives in poverty,” Cranford said of children in Jefferson County, “so if their families are struggling to provide basic necessities, they probably don’t have books.”

In Jefferson County, 22.5% of children live in poverty, along with 23.7% in Walker County, according to the latest data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. In 2022, Alabama ranked fifth in the United States for most children living in poverty, accounting for 22.7% of children statewide.

Gray said a book can serve many purposes.

“The child can hear the language, hear the different words, learn the vocabulary as someone explains the words to them,” Gray said. “You can take a book and teach the letters of the alphabet just by the title; You can teach punctuation in it. They can even teach math skills – you can look at how many characters are on the page, or who is in the front center and who is in the back.”

Gray clarified that a child who doesn’t have strong literacy skills when they enter school doesn’t mean they can’t catch up.

“It’s not that our students can’t catch up — they can, but they’re already at a deficit, so it’s just taking longer,” she said.

Cranford added that incorporating books early can help children be better prepared before they start school.

“With the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, you start with the foundation,” she said. “So they’re targeting the youngest kids and putting them on the right path instead of figuring out later how to make things better.”

Dolly Parton's Imagination Library at Better Basics Birmingham

A shelf at Better Basics in Birmingham, Alabama, displays books from the Dolly Parton Imagination Library alongside brochures for the January 26, 2023 program.

Gray added that story time is one of the most exciting parts of class. She said it’s powerful to see children develop confidence, raise their hands to read in class and become empowered to master larger vocabulary.

“We always say we can go anywhere in a book. You know, we can be at the royal family events, we can be on a safari, it doesn’t matter,” Gray said. “We lose ourselves in the books, and that’s what we want as teachers for our students, and we want them to have a lifelong love of reading, and that starts right there with Dolly Parton.”