People Who Love Babies Give Them Books

By Pam Leo, Family Literacy Activist

Children don’t start learning to read when they start school. They start learning the day they are born if there are books in the home. Children without books cannot read. Children who cannot read cannot thrive. Whether or not a child learns to read will determine their standard of living and their quality of life. Illiteracy is a disease of poverty. The way out of poverty is literacy. The currency of literacy is children’s books. 

Dolly Parton knows this. Long ago she figured out that the antidote to illiteracy was to give free books to young children starting at birth. “Dolly Parton founded the Imagination Library in 1995 as a way to distribute books to the impoverished Tennessee county where she grew up. The State of Tennessee quickly adopted the program statewide, and, since then, the nonprofit program has expanded into five countries. As of June 2022, the Imagination Library has gifted 184,615,046 books with over 2 million kids currently registered.” - Imagination Library.

Maine’s own Raising Readers program knows this too. They give free new books to children starting at birth and at every well-child visit until age 5. “For over 20 years, Raising Readers has reached more than 290,000 [Maine] children with more than 3 million books through the participation of all midwives, hospitals, and healthcare providers serving Maine children.” - Raising Readers

The Book Fairy Pantry Project also knows this. For the last six years, we have been supporting schools and libraries in meeting the literacy needs of the community. We do this by providing free new and gently-used donated children’s books to families through the food pantries, the WIC program, Early Head Start and Head Start programs, elementary schools, and through community events. 

"You can never get enough books into the hands of enough children."
 - Dolly Parton, founder, 
Imagination Library
Now …the state of Maine knows this too. As many of you know, having Imagination Library available for every new baby born in Maine has been one of my dreams since I founded the Book Fairy Pantry Project six years ago. It turns out dreams really do come true! Our Governor, Janet Mills, just announced that beginning in 2023, the State of  Maine will become the 13th state to cosponsor statewide participation in Dolly’s Imagination Library program. Every month, her program will mail a free new book to all babies and children through age five, in Maine, who are signed up by their parents. 

There are many logistics to be figured out when administering a program this large, so we don’t have all the details yet. However, there is one detail we can all help with. That detail is making sure all expectant parents and parents of children up to age five know about this program so they can sign their children up to receive their free monthly book in the mail. 

At last, we have some “good” news to talk about! And this is really good news. We all now have the opportunity to contribute to children’s literacy by sharing this good news with all parents. Now all parents have a way to provide books for their children. Children with books in their homes, who are read to daily from birth, learn to read more easily and joyfully. Once children learn to read, they can read to learn. 

No one knows better than Dolly what it is like to grow up in poverty. Dolly’s father never learned to read or write. The Imagination Library is Dolly’s way of making sure that all children have books in their homes. Let’s help Dolly help our babies to thrive by telling every person we meet to tell every parent they know about signing up for Imagination Library. When this program begins, it will mean the beginning of the end of poverty-caused illiteracy in Maine. The future will now be much brighter for ALL of our babies. Bless you, Dolly.

Pam Leo, is a family literacy activist, the author of Connection Parenting, and a new poem, Please Read To Me. Her enduring love of children's books, her passion for literacy, and her commitment to empowering parents, are combined in her new role as the founder of the Book Fairy Pantry Project, whose mission is "No Child With No Books," because "Books change children's lives... For good."