May is always one of my favorite months, and my annual trip to Tennessee is one of my favorite weeks. For nearly 20 years, I have served on the Book Selection Committee for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library project. To date, the program has given away more than 120 MILLION books to preschool children across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. To learn more about the program, visit the Imagination Library website.

Of all her many honors, Dolly Parton has said she appreciates her title of “The Book Lady” most of all. Growing up poor in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, she credits reading with showing her the wider world and dreaming of the life she might one day lead.

Children in participating communities receive a book a month from the time they are born until they turn five. They enter kindergarten owning a personal library of 60 books, including award-winning titles, classics, and books from some of today’s most popular authors.

For several days each May, Book Selection Committee members read and discuss more than 100 new books from Penguin/Random House, which supplies all the titles for the program. After examining the writing and illustration quality, racial and gender diversity, appropriateness for the intended age range, and other factors, we decide which of the current year’s selections should receive further consideration for inclusion. We then look at the current books in the program and decide which titles at each level should be updated.

Our discussions are lively and intense. We each bring unique perspectives, and we each look for specific things as we read the books. Over the years, we have all become good friends who look forward to our annual “working reunion.”

Sometimes, when Dolly is in town, she visits us while we are meeting. This year she stopped by on our final day and complimented us on our work. The next day, several committee members, along with other friends of the Dollywood Foundation, Dolly’s nonprofit wing, were invited to attend the grand opening of the Wildwood Grove attraction at Dollywood. What a cool experience!

Then, one by one, we got photos taken with Dolly. After the photo, she thanked me for all I was doing to support the Imagination Library program and children’s reading. She’s given away 100 million books, and she’s thanking ME. That truly brought a lump to my throat.

Each year, I look forward to this meeting. Each year, I’m sorry when it’s over. This year was even more special than usual. I’m already looking forward to next year.

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