Dolly Parton is sending free books to Coast kids, but you can help

Walter Upton, 2, shows off his favorite books from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library
Walter Upton, 2, shows off his favorite books from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library

Walter Upton is 2, and Dolly Parton has sent him a book every month of his life.

He loves them. He knows that when there’s a book in the mailbox, it’s for him.

And because he has his own personal library of books at home, he has a bigger vocabulary. His mother Karen Upton calls it extensive.

The books are free to him and his parents.

Upton credits the books she reads to him for his ability to string sentences together and use words like “remember.”

She found out about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program when she was in the hospital having Walter. The program had just started in Moss Point.

Even though she taught school for 11 years, almost every book he has received so far is new to her. But Upton said the books have been selected by a panel of experts as age-appropriate for him.

“He has the bottom shelf at home for his books, and he keeps adding to them,” she said.

While his mother was talking, he walked up with “Good Night Gorilla,” and declared, “That’s my favorite book.”

He turned to a battered, well-worn page that was all black except for two white eyes and whispered, “It’s dark.”

Then he let everyone present know he and his mother had checked the mail already and there was no new book today.

Upton said, “I think Dolly Parton knows how important books are and wants to make sure everyone has the same advantage, because it’s so important when they get to school.”

Parton started the program in 1995 to benefit children in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee, and East Tennessee counties. It has expanded to communities all over the U.S. and several other countries. The program sends books each month until a child is 5. The cost is $30 a year to the local group that oversees the program.

What Parton’s team mails is high-quality books to the home of each child. Children receive them regardless of their family’s income.

In her letter on the Imagination Library website, she says, “This program is one of the most important ways I know to improve the educational opportunities for children in your community.”

In Moss Point, the number of children receiving books had hovered at around 17 until recently, when a new push signed up 96 children.

Moss Point’s Excel by 5 is sponsoring the book giveaway and has the money to cover the annual fee for the 96 for five years, but it doesn’t want to stop with that.

“You’d be surprised, there are families here that don’t have books,” said Linda Gray with Moss Point’s Excel By 5 and New Beginnings Child Care.

So they are looking for donors to cover more preschoolers in Moss Point’s 39563 and 39562 ZIP codes.

Parents in Moss Point wanting to apply may pick up an application at Burnham Drugs, Southern Sass Nails, Ann Waller Tax Services, the Ina Thompson Public Library, City Hall, the Recreation Center downtown, the Century Bank on Mississippi 63 and local day cares. Or you can apply online at They need to alert the United Way for Jackson and George Counties that they have applied.

Donna Stewart said the United Way endorses the program and urges participation. Deidre DenBleyker is the Moss Point coordinator.

“This is all Dolly,” Stewart said, “all we have to do is make sure we have a local group willing to do the administrative job of signing kids up and purchasing the books at an extreme discount.”

The biggest hindrance to participation, Stewart said, is families receiving the books just don’t believe they are free.

More than 2,000 children in South Mississippi receive the books through the sponsorship of one agency or another.

To sponsor a child or just contribute

  • Mail a check to United Way for Jackson and George Counties, 3510 Magnolia St., Pascagoula, MS 39567. Note the donation is for Moss Point’s DPIL program.