December 04, 2023

Wildly successful ‘Books for Little Friends’ program has a ‘good’ problem

The first book that children receive through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is the classic folktale “The Little Engine that Could.”

Rita Baker, president of the Friends of the Newton Public Library, has found that the book’s theme dovetails nicely with what has happened in Jasper County now that young residents are receiving free books once a month.

“The Dolly Parton Foundation in Tennessee has got to be wondering what is happening in Jasper County in Iowa,” Baker told the Newton Noon Kiwanis Club on May 4. “The program here has been overwhelmingly successful.”

Although the local branch of the Imagination Library (established under the nonprofit status of the Friends of the Library) has only been up and running since August 2021, the response to the Jasper County Books for Little Friends program has been “over the top,” Baker said. “In the first three months, the number of children signed up was what was predicted for our third year.” There currently are 850 children enrolled. Nationwide, 180,548,415 books have been mailed to children since Dolly Parton launched the Imagination Library in 1995.

Locally, the first books arrived in the homes of children ages 5 and younger in October. There is no fee for the program, and there is no income limit or limit to the number of children (birth to 5) in a household who can receive a free book each month.

But like the Little Engine that Could, the Jasper County program is facing a steep uphill climb because although the books are paid for through the Dolly Parton Foundation, it must raise $2.10 for each book to cover postage. The program is sponsored by the Jasper County Community Foundation and the JMP Early Childhood Initiative as well as private donations.

“We have a problem,” Baker said, “But it’s a wonderful problem to have.”

Phyllis Peter, youth services librarian at Newton Public Library, told Kiwanians that studies show that the single most important predictor of success in school is being read to at home.

Besides the many other statistics that show how vital reading is to success in school and life, reading “creates a bond between a parent and a child or a grandparent and a child,” Peter said.

Peter also is trying to get the program “picked up by the state,” as other states including Delaware, Montana and Ohio, have done. A bill would need to be introduced in the Iowa State Legislature that would make the Imagination Library into an official statewide program. If such a bill were passed, funding would be shared by the state government, the Dolly Parton Foundation and community partners.

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To sign up, parents of children from birth to age 5 can go to and click on “Check Availability.”