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Home  >  Reading and Writing  >  Love of Reading
Dolly Parton's Imagination Library in Alaska
By Barbara Brown

Photo by Marco Gutierrez

By spring 2011, more than 13,000 Alaska children from birth to age 5 were receiving free children's books in the mail -- every month. It began with Dolly Parton in Tennessee and has flowered in Alaska through the work of Best Beginnings, "Alaska's Early Childhood Investment." It begins with the first book for every child (The Little Engine that Could) and ends with each child's fifth birthday and Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come! In between are 12 brand new, age appropriate, highly regarded children's books every month.

In 1996, Dolly Parton decided to fund books every month for the children in her home county in Tennessee. By 2000, the Dollywood Foundation had launched the plan for other communities to take part in what she dubbed the Imagination Library.

Imagination Library in Alaska arrived first in the village of Hoonah, sponsored by Parents as Teachers. Then it spread to Nome, Juneau, and the Fairbanks North Star Borough. But it wasn't till Best Beginnings received funding from the Rasmuson Foundation, ConocoPhillips Alaska, and The CIRI Foundation that the program took off. Then the Alaska legislature and the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development came on board with additional funding.

By early 2011, more than 70 Alaska communities were participating in the program. The program only works on a community level; parents cannot sign up their children unless their community has taken up the charge. As we like to say, this is not just a book delivery program; it's a community building program -- building a community that's oriented around its children's success in school.

The Dollywood Foundation calls the person who catalyses and organizes their community's involvement the "Local Champion," and around the state, these champions come from many different places. In Seward/Moose Pass, they came from the PTSA. In Tok, the local Head Start and moms took on the tasks. In Barrow, it's the Friends of Tuzzy Library.

And just like Tennessee's neighbors wanted to expand the program, so do those in Alaska. The Association for the Education of Young Children Southeast (AEYC-SEA) spearheaded the effort to launch Imagination Library in Juneau. Then it expanded to Wrangell. Then Craig, Klawock, Kake, and Angoon. Now, the Juneau champions are coaching Sitka through the process, and then Ketchikan.

Photo by Marco Gutierrez
The moms of Tok took their program to Tanacross. Then Northway, Mentasta Lake, Tetlin, and Eagle. As they've grown, they've had to change their name; now they're the Upper Tanana Imagination Library.

Meanwhile, several Native educational foundations -- historically in the business of funding scholarships for post-secondary education -- were becoming frustrated with the number of applicants not coming through the pipeline as Alaska's high school graduation rates declined. The Kuskokwim Education Foundation decided to underwrite expansion of Imagination Library to their villages, beginning with Aniak and ultimately including Upper and Lower Kalskag, Sleetmute, Crooked Creek, Chuathbaluk, Stony River, and Red Devil. Old Harbor Scholarship Foundation enrolled the 18 eligible children in their community ... and then decided to expand to their shareholders and descendants. By reaching the very young, they're hoping to set them up for school -- and life -- success early.

Scientific research demonstrates that the brains of young children are forming rapidly and extensively before the age of three. If parents wait till school -- or even preschool -- to begin reading to their children, they are missing valuable developmental time and opportunity. Best Beginnings supports parents as a child's first teacher ... so books in the home become a crucial part of that effort.

National statistics have shown that 60% of kindergartners in neighborhoods where children did poorly in school did not own a single book. Fourth graders with fewer than ten books in their home had lower average reading scores than their peers with more.

University of Alaska Anchorage researchers Drs. Hilary Seitz and Robert Capuozzo did a study of Imagination Library in the communities of Anchorage, Angoon, Fairbanks, Nome, and Seward. With families that had not yet participated in Imagination Library:

  • Almost 25% have ten or fewer children's books in the home
  • More than 14% say their children are only somewhat or not at all enthusiastic about books and reading

Contrast this with the Imagination Library families, where:

  • 94% have more than 20 children's books in the home
  • Over 80% report their children as very enthusiastic about books and reading

What exactly does a community have to do to champion Imagination Library to their children? We've boiled it down to several tasks:

  • Enrolling the children, birth to age 5
  • Maintaining the mailing list database
  • Providing reading enrichment activities, family nights, etc.
  • Raising the funds as a community so the books remain free to the children
  • Working with the post office to keep undeliverable books to a minimum

Basically, the community pays for the books and mailing, promotes the program, registers the children, and enters the information into the database. From there The Dollywood Foundation takes over and manages the system to deliver the books to the home.

Photo by Sherri Caldwell
It costs roughly $30/year to supply one child with 12 books. Best Beginnings provides matching funds and technical assistance to communities that organize their Imagination Libraries, as well as activity sheets for each book so parents can extend the experience. And what do the parents say about it:

          "Thank you very much! I just received the first book, Momma, Will You, and my 2 year old loves it! He wants to read it over and over and over...."

          "My grandson is in kindergarten now and had been receiving these books since he was a baby and my daughter was on WIC. At the time my daughter could not afford the luxury of books. But having the books from Imagination Library gave them something to look forward to, and when they received a new book in the mail it was like Christmas. I truly believe that because he received those books he is a better reader and a better listener."

You, too, can be part of the Imagination Library -- as a new Local Champion bringing it to your community, as a donor, or as a volunteer in one of the existing Imagination Libraries. Free books for kids -- it's as simple as that.

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About the Author: Barbara Brown is an Anchorage writer who caught the reading bug early. As project manager at Best Beginning, she spreads Imagination Library -- and books for children -- across Alaska.

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