Ethnic Media Services
On Tuesday, June 6, California launched a statewide Imagination Library Program.
Through Senate Bill 1183, which established the statewide rollout of Dolly Parton’s nonprofit program, every Californian under the age of 5 will be eligible to receive a free monthly book in the mail. The bipartisan bill was written by Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) and Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) in partnership with the Dollywood Foundation, and signed by Governor Newsom on September 30, 2022.
California is the 15th and largest state to launch this program statewide, and the first to offer bilingual book options (English and Spanish). The bill allows a one-time $68.2 million state budget fund to launch the program, by which the Imagination Library Foundation under the administration of the California State Library will deliver books through local partners in each county.
Since Parton established the Imagination Library in her home Tennessee County in 1995, the program has gifted over 186 million books across five countries.
“Before he passed away, my Daddy told me the Imagination Library was probably the most important thing I had ever done,” Parton has said of the program. “I can’t tell you how much that meant to me because I created the Imagination Library as a tribute to my Daddy. He was the smartest man I have ever known, but I know in my heart his inability to read probably kept him from fulfilling all of his dreams.”
Greg Lucas, who has been California’s 25th State Librarian since March 2014, said, “One of the strengths of this program is the community involvement that it fosters … partners which sign up kids in their community can be a school district, a Friends of the Library, a rotary club or other service organization, or a First 5 office, to name a few.”
Of the 2.4 million eligible children across California’s 58 counties, only 1% were enrolled in an existing Imagination Library program in the state when SB1183 was passed in fall 2022, while one out of every 10 children in the country then received a monthly book.
Lucas said that, before the statewide rollout, the Imagination Library was “available to any kid who wanted to join in 20 counties around California … in about 40 locations.” Now, “The state will write a check for 50% of the cost of each book that goes to kids. The books are free to kids, but local partners have to come up with the cost of mailing and printing. That’s about $2.60 a month, and now the state is picking up half of that.”
Countering the tide of book bans
This accessibility comes as a counter to the wave of school and library book bans which, since 2021, has spiked in other states — particularly Texas and Florida — to a 20-year high.
“Of the states that have passed these laws that restrict the sorts of books that can be on shelves and subject librarians to penalties … you can trace back most of these challenges to about 11 people,” Lucas said. “So it isn’t about lots of people supporting the removal of books. It’s a few people creating the fear of having to go through all these challenges in the first place.”
He continued, “If you’re a local or school librarian, the school board and other community and parent groups are involved, and the result is that people are reluctant to put the book on the shelf. It creates this climate of fear and self-censorship, which is probably the objective.”
Governor Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Rob Bonta, and State Superintendent Tony Thurmond sent a joint letter to school administrators across the state cautioning them against book bans, noting legal mandates around providing access to diverse perspectives and curricula.
“Access to books – including books that reflect the diverse experiences and perspectives of Californians, and especially, those that may challenge us to grapple with uncomfortable truths – is a profound freedom we all must protect and cultivate,” the letter read.
As for distribution, the Imagination Library chooses books — all published by Penguin Random House — through a panel of early childhood learning and reading experts; the first book that each child receives is “The Little Engine That Could.”
“California is the most diverse group of people that have ever been brought together as equals in the history of human civilization,” Lucas said. “Over 200 languages are spoken here. Of course, it’s a challenge to line up local partners to enroll as many of 2.4 million kids as possible to receive books every month until they turn five, but as Dolly Parton says, ‘You’ll never do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough to try.’”
“Building a home library is key to consistently getting books in kids’ hands, and this is key to raising strong readers,” he added. “Whatever the challenges that we face in this — in the words of Congressman John Lewis — it’s good trouble.”