CNBC Meets

Dolly Parton: How my father inspired the ‘Imagination Library’

The inspiration behind Dolly's ‘Imagination Library’
The inspiration behind Dolly's ‘Imagination Library’
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Dolly Parton may be a successful businesswoman and global country music megastar, but the cause she's truly passionate about supporting is the gift of literacy for children.

In 1995, the country music legend launched the "Imagination Library," a community-based reading initiative that mails a free book every month to children from when they are born, up until the age of five.

Fast forward more than two decades, and the charity has become an international success. From what started in her home county in East Tennessee, the Imagination Library has expanded beyond locations in the U.S., to include Canada, Australia and the U.K.

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Thanks to the charity, thousands of children can now enjoy literature from a young age, regardless of their financial background. However, not everyone in life has been as lucky, including the singer's father, who grew up not learning to read or write.

"The Imagination Library came from a very serious place in my heart. My dad and a lot of my relatives that grew up hard too, big families, they couldn't actually get a chance to go to school, because they had to work," Parton told CNBC Meets' Tania Bryer.

"My daddy couldn't read and write, but daddy was so smart, he could just do numbers in his head. But my daddy then after he was grown, he couldn't read or write; he thought that it was just too hard to do."

Dolly Parton with guests at the press launch for Dolly's Imagination Library in 2007.
Gareth Davies | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

For her father to be so smart and talented, but not have been given the chance to read or write, bothered Parton; telling CNBC she couldn't even begin to imagine what life would have been like for him, if he'd been given the option. So in honor of her father, the Imagination Library began to take flight.

"When I decided what I was going to do for a great charity, then I thought well I'm gonna do this: to get books in the hands of children, because if you can learn to read, if you can read, you can self-educate yourself."

"And so that's where it started in my county here, it was just for here in the county and then people got hold of it, …and we expanded it to where it was all over Tennessee," she added.

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In 2000, Imagination Library debuted as a national initiative and has since expanded, currently looking into emerging countries such as Belize. To date, well over 900,000 children are registered under the literacy program around the world, and more than 76 million books have been mailed since it began 21 years ago.

"Now we're doing a lot of stuff all over the world and you can't get enough books in the hands of enough children; so this is a program I'm really proud of."

CNBC Meets: Dolly Parton will air in the U.S. on CNBC World on June 3, at 19.00 EST.