Alexandria resident Nancy Wright donates to the Dolly Parton Imagination Library every year on the birthdays of her late grandsons.
“Every year on Mark and Evan’s birthdays since they passed, I have donated to the Imagination Library in their memory,” Wright said. “Just something I want to continue to do for years. Since I can’t buy them birthday presents, I do this in their names.”
The Dolly Parton Imagination Library is a program offered through the Campbell County Public Library in partnership with five of the six local school districts (excluding Southgate, which has its own program) to send children a free book every month. There’s no cost to sign up and get the books, but for a program to be in a place like Campbell County, a local affiliate must agree to pay for the cost of mailing the books. The program came to Campbell County in 2019 but has been around since 1995.
In January of 2022, Wright said her family was blessed with a third grandson through adoption, and 19-month-old Isaac receives his free book every month from the Imagination Library.
A newborn signed up in the program will receive 60 books by the time they age out at 5 years old.
The first book every kid receives is “The Little Engine That Could”— a favorite of Parton’s dad. After a child is signed up, there is about a two-month waiting period until they receive their first book. Campbell County Public Library Director JC Morgan said that board books are mailed out for the first couple of months to help kids know how to hold a book and flip through its pages to work on their mechanics.
After that, books become more traditional and include paperbacks. After the first two years, Morgan said there are themes in the books that parents can use to help their children learn. How to indicate colors or practicing the alphabet are common themes.
“They want the parents to be involved in the child’s growth and learning to read,” Morgan said.
The Imagination Library uses the Book Order System, which Morgan said anticipates and predicts how many children will be in each age range per book. He said the books are age-appropriate down to the exact month of the child’s age.
“They are deliberately chosen by the committee to be age appropriate to the month, so they are covering all of the themes that a child should be exposed to prior to getting to kindergarten,” Morgan said.
The last book that every child receives is “Ready for Kindergarten.”
“So, when your one-year-one-month-old gets a book, it’ll be a different book than your three-year-two-month-old,” Morgan said. “So, the BOS predicts how many books need to be printed six months in advance.”
The books are mailed to the child in their name.
“That’s part of the magic of it,” Morgan said. “When you’re under 5 years old, getting a piece of mail is really cool.”
Morgan said the Imagination Library tries to promote “laps, not apps,” which is an effort to encourage parents to read with their kids.
Wright said her first grandchild, Mark, who passed away in 2017 of SIDS, loved books and was always ready to sit in their lap with a book prepared for a story.
“While planning his funeral, my daughter and son-in-law knew they wanted donations having to do with books or reading,” Wright said. “The funeral director actually suggested the Imagination Library. We had never heard of it before, but after doing some research, they decided to have donations sent there.”
Morgan said the program wants parents and caregivers to share their emotions as they read.
“Hopefully, in the hustle and bustle of life, a parent can still find time to sit down with that child and share the book,” Wright said. “I believe an early foundation in reading and love for books will ultimately fuel their love for learning throughout their entire life.”
Morgan said that about two years ago, Kentucky passed legislation to fund the Imagination Library program statewide, and they pay for half of all Kentucky programs. The other half of the bill is split 50/50 by the public library and five participating school districts. The library bills the districts based on how many children are registered in its zip code.
The program has a 501c(3) affiliate, and its funds are separate from the libraries.
Morgan said donations go into the Campbell County Imagination Library’s bank account, offsetting costs.
In 2019, almost exactly two years after his big brother died, Wirght’s second grandchild, Evan, died of a congenital heart defect.
“Of course, his parents decided to have donations made again to the Imagination Library,” Wright said.
Morgan said only seven counties out of 120 in the state do not have an Imagination Library program. As for Northern Kentucky, he said Boone County has a county-wide program, but Kenton County does not—though Ludlow Schools implemented the program last year.
“I think we’re unique,” Morgan said. “We were definitely the first school/library partnership paying for it.”
Aside from being unique, Morgan said their program has been successful. He said the Imagination Library estimates reaching a 30% saturation of the target audience in one year. Morgan said they got it in three days, with 1,700 kids signed up. After the first year, they reached 50%, and he said they have hung around a 55% registration since. Morgan said they have about 3,080 kids registered, out of approximately 5,500 0–5-year-olds in Campbell County, according to the 2020 census. Statewide, a goal has been set to reach 65% in the next four years.
Wright said why not take advantage of a program where you can get a free book and “instill the love of reading” in a child.
“I love the fact that it’s open to every child (where the program is available),” Wright said. “It’s so easy to sign up. The thrill of getting a new book in the mail and hopefully the joy that book brings to them.”