Building Readers Book by Book - 405 Magazine

Building Readers Book by Book

Oklahoma County and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library work to foster young literacy.

Courtesy of Metropolitan Library

Oklahoma County and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library work to foster young literacy. 

There is no other feeling like picking up a book. Reading informs and empowers us. It can take us on adventures to new worlds and tap into the depths of our imagination. Imagination fosters creativity, and without it comes a lack of innovation. Imagination leads to discovery, new ideas and understanding. 

According to a 2020 Gallup analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education, an estimated 54% of Americans between the ages of 16 and 74 read below a sixth-grade level. The department defines literacy as the ability to use written material, which includes both reading and writing, to “function in society, to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” Illiteracy can stem from limited schooling, or from having a learning disability or difficult living conditions such as poverty.

Sponsoring education and encouraging children to read at a young age is one of the most effective means of ending illiteracy, and Oklahoma City Public Schools and the Metropolitan Library System have partnered with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to bring books to young Oklahoma County readers.

The country star launched the program in 1995 to foster learning and reading by providing one free book every month for each registered child from as early as their birth until their 5th birthday. Now, any family with young children living at least part-time in Oklahoma County is eligible for the program. If statewide enrollment reaches 60% within three years, Parton will visit Oklahoma. 

The Dollywood Foundation and local nonprofit partnerships share the program’s funding, and the partnerships operate the program at a local level. “In Oklahoma County, the program has three different sponsors,” said Laura Sikes, director of Imagination Library of Oklahoma. “Midwest City, Del City, Luther and Jones are sponsored by private family foundations. For the remainder of the greater OKC area within Oklahoma County, the sponsor is the Metropolitan Library System, Friends of the Library and the Library Trust.” Affiliates may elect to host fundraising events for the program.

In May 2022, the Oklahoma Department of Education announced that it would match local funds for the program statewide using $2.5 million in COVID relief money, likely until 2024. “An important takeaway is that the program can only succeed long-term with ongoing local support,” Sikes said. “It costs a little over $26 per child per year to provide the program, which covers the cost of printing and shipping the books.”

The state education department and OKCPS are enthusiastic about how the program can serve Oklahoman children. “This program benefits OKCPS and all school systems in Oklahoma County by helping children receive reading materials at home and aims to improve literacy skills,” said Heather Zeoli, the director of development and volunteer services at the Metropolitan Library System.

One of the challenges of the pandemic has been that students were often found deficient in state-required reading and comprehension. “There has been a national decline in school readiness among children since 2020,” Zeoli said. “This program will help prepare more Oklahoma children for school, and it helps connect families with reading by using resources from their local public library.”

To enroll for free, visit The Metropolitan Library System can also help enroll those who do not have access to internet services.