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Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library supports early childhood reading in Benzie County

Audrey Lovendusky
Two-year-old Colton reads his Dolly Parton Imagination Library book on his bed.

It's a cold March day and Audrey Lovendusky’s three young children are itching for a new activity.

Audrey and her two-year-old son, Colton, carefully walk down their icy steps to the driveway, where they find three new books in the mailbox. Colton screeches with excitement, then quietly roars like the bear he sees on the cover of his book.

The Lovendusky family receives books as part of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. Every month, a book arrives in the mail for each child in the house—one for Colton and one for each of his six-month-old twin sisters.

Audrey raises her family in Honor, Mich. It can be hard to get everyone out of the house, she said, so it’s been a huge help to have books delivered right to her door.

“His imagination has gotten bigger. I can tell,” she said. “He likes to do a lot more make-believe and he’s learning the animals. So he’s definitely learning more, growing, getting ready for preschool for sure.”

The Imagination Library is an international non-profit that has worked to improve early childhood literacy since the ‘90s. Local non-profits raise the funds to buy books at a discounted rate, and Dolly Parton’s team ships them to families. It costs $25 a year for each child.

“It’s pretty amazing what Dolly Parton has done. Her story of growing up in a home where there were no books, because they were poor—she just knew that this is important for children to have books,” said Valerie Gerhart, who manages the program in Benzie County.

A retired school teacher, Valerie knows reading is important to a child’s later success.

“When you sit down with a child and read a book and there’s that little bit of snuggle and the pace of the voice reading, the familiarity of the person reading to them,” Valerie said. “Doctors, researchers have found neurons just really take off firing and that builds those brain connections.”

Research has found toddlers who aren’t frequently read to test lower in reading and cognition in elementary school, regardless of family background or home environment.

The focus isn’t that a child learns to read before kindergarten, Valerie said, but that they start to model the behavior found in books and develop skills.

“What is important is that they’ve had to listen to a story from beginning to end, and comprehend and create the visual images that go with the story,” she said.

Valerie said many families report it’s appreciated, especially if it’s tough to get to the library.

“I had recently a nice letter from a mom who referred to this as angels in disguise, because she doesn’t have the finances to be able to go out and buy books. But she says for my child to get a book every month, it just lights her up,” she said.

The books are chosen by literacy experts, who pick from new releases as well as classics. Each year, a child gets two bilingual books.

As the program enters its fourth year, it’s grown to serve more than 450 kids in Benzie County, Valerie said.

“And when I see a parent in Benzie County—usually at the grocery store, pushing a little person in the grocery cart,—I’ll ask, ‘are you in the Imagination Library?’ I don’t find very many anymore that say, ‘no, what’s that?’”

Valerie said they recently started surveying families headed to kindergarten. They hope results show children being read to and visiting the local library more often.

Anyone interested in signing up a child for the program can visit imaginationlibrary.com.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.