The book is in the mail. No, really. It is.

Let’s be honest: When we think of Dolly Parton, we all think of one thing. OK, two. We think of her beautiful country soprano and her very big hair.

Here in Addison County, we also think of children’s books when the name Dolly Parton comes to my mind — at least if we have small children at home. (If we don’t have young ones in the house, we might be more likely to envision Parton’s mighty impressive, much observed, pair of stars. One is on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the other is on the Nashville Star Walk for Grammy winners.)

The connection between the country singer and books is Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library: A program that every single month mails a free book to any preschool child in the county who signs up to participate. The only catch? The child needs to be a resident of Addison County. Children are eligible from the day they’re born until they turn 5. The program is managed locally and funded here by Addison County Readers Inc.

Parton launched the Imagination Library in 1996 in her home county of Sevier, Tenn., to get young children excited about books. It’s a smart program from a smart entertainer. (It may be apocryphal, but Parton is alleged to have said once, “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb … and I also know I’m not blonde.”) Now more than 700 communities across the country participate. At the moment, Addison County is the only area in Vermont that is involved.

It was brought to Vermont late last year by David Clark, director of the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury; Carol Wells, a former owner of Deer Leap Books in Bristol; and Dinah Bain, a computer programmer who volunteers in the Bridport Elementary School.

According to Wells, now 819 children are enrolled — or just about 40 percent of the kids in the county who are under 5 years of age. The first book every child receives is the Watty Piper classic, “The Little Engine that Could.” The final one is, appropriately enough, Joseph Slate and Ashley Wolff’s “Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten.” In between they receive terrific tales featuring the likes of Max and Flossie and Spot.

Despite the reality that there are absolutely no strings, Wells says some parents remain suspicious. She had a booth advertising the program this in September on the Bristol green during the village’s Harvest Festival, and moms and dads simply couldn’t believe that their child might receive as many as 60 books free of charge — all delivered right to their mailbox. “I had to look around the green for parents who I knew had enrolled their kids to convince these other parents that there wasn’t a catch. When I saw people I knew who were involved, they would go on and on about how much they loved the program,” Wells recalls.

Still, the skepticism makes sense. Twelve books a year? Sixty over five years? All free? “The program costs about $30 per child per year, including books and postage,” Wells says. Some of that cost is underwritten by Dolly Parton‘s Imagination Library, but a sizable chunk needs to be raised every year by Addison County Readers Inc. Current sponsors include area American Legions, Lions Clubs, and Wells’ family’s own Wells Mountain Foundation.

But it’s worth the effort. “Kids love to get things in the mail,” says Bristol mother Sheri Bannister. Her two little boys are enrolled. “When we go to the mailbox and the book is there, it’s the big thrill of the day. And as a mom, I know that someone has thoughtfully chosen these books and geared them to just the right age group.”

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To enroll your children, visit your local Addison County library.

To explore whether you can bring Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to your community, visit

And to support Addison County Readers, send your contribution to the United Way of Addison County, P. O. Box 555, Middlebury, VT 05753. Stipulate on the memo line of the check that the money is for Addison County Readers Inc.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on November 16, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.