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Connecting with families and community through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library

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Regular CELA writer Beth Sebesfi speaks with Explore & Develop North Ryde and Macquarie Park to find out how children and the broader community are benefiting from an initiative called Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, and how other services can get involved.


By Beth Sebefsi

Embedding a culture of charitable giving with a focus on literacy

After reflecting on the role of philanthropy in the Early Childhood Sector, Libby Klingberg, owner of Explore & Develop North Ryde and Macquarie Park, posed the question; “How can we actually embed a culture of charitable giving in our services?”

Libby and the parent committee discussed how they could take the idea of charitable giving beyond fundraising to nurture citizenship and altruism in their community, and lend their own expertise and experience to truly make a difference.

In 2014, a decision was made to seek out a charity that directly supported Australian children in a way that was tangible and accessible to the children at Explore & Develop. Libby empowered the community to connect with the book giving program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Australia.

About Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library of Australia is a free book gifting program devoted to inspiring a love of reading in the hearts of children everywhere. Each month, enrolled children receive a high-quality, age-appropriate book in the mail, free of charge. Children receive books from birth to age five.

The Imagination Library provides the infrastructure of the core program including managing the secure central database for the Book Order System and coordinating book selections and wholesale purchasing. It also incurs the cost of the program’s administrative expenses and coordinates the monthly mailings.

Dolly Parton promotes World Read Aloud Day in February this year

The organisation partners with Local Champions, like Explore & Develop, who help bring the program to cities, towns and communities around the world. Local Champions can be businesses, small or large organisations (Like Explore & Develop), or simply individuals who share in the mission and purpose of the Imagination Library.

Local Champions are responsible for enrolling children who live within the geographical area they offer the program in. They promote their local programs online and at events. While the Imagination Library negotiates wholesale pricing for the books, Local Champions are responsible for securing funds to cover that cost. Books are 100% free to enrolled children because their Local Champion has secured funds to cover the cost of the books and the postage fees.

Since 2014, Explore & Develop North Ryde and Macquarie Park have raised over $30,000 through grass roots family fun days and campaigns designed and led by the community in order to cover the costs of the books and the postage fees.

An new source of enrichment

Each month every classroom at Explore & Develop, North Ryde and Macquarie Park, receives a copy of that month’s feature book. The children recognise what a special thing it is to read the same book that they’ve helped to send out to the community.

Educators share the book with the class, which constantly re-engages the children with the impact of their philanthropy. It’s not just about fundraising; it’s about instilling the children’s commitment to giving in a really joyful way.

Reading is a two-way process, fortified through conversation and interaction with language and pictures. Every book presents new opportunities to explore and learn across contexts and multi modalities.

An educator reads one of the Learning Library books while sharing related activities with children

Chantelle Hoffmann, an Early Childhood Teacher at Explore & Develop North Ryde, has found a new source of enrichment from the Imagination Library program.

“Each month the children receive this tangible connection to something bigger than our classroom,” says Chantelle. “They know that their book is the book that children all over Australia are reading together with their families that month, so it becomes an instant favourite. We take that engagement, and we find a way to weave it through our programs; it might inspire the dramatic play space, or we might build the themes of the story into our construction area or explore the illustrators’ techniques in our creative arts studio”.

Contributing expertise to the program in order to further empower families

As the partnership with the Imagination Library evolved, the team were invited to critically reflect on the work of the organisation and contribute their expertise to extend its reach and impact.

With the understanding that many adults in disadvantaged communities may not feel confident in their ability to read to their children effectively, educators critically reflected on how they too could contribute to the imagination library by supporting the families at home.

“We were invited to explore the books and then use our expertise to write down some tips and guidance for how to take the reading experience further. We were blown away by how many families felt empowered by these tip sheets, so we do it every month, for every book.”

Libby provides time for every Early Childhood Teacher in the service to develop this resource both collaboratively and independently. As a fervent advocate for inclusion, Libby also looked for ways to welcome families within the service to share the joy of reading and building literacy at home.

“Families are able to borrow each book. Then, they post and share with our service community not only the act of reading but also what they do to expand on the learning opportunities that the books provide”.

Building connections and partnerships

In 2020, Explore & Develop were asked to extend support to children in rural communities in the Northern Territory.

“We were so honoured to be invited to support Katherine Isolated Children’s Service, which we call KICS,” says Libby. “This charity visits isolated children and families and builds connections and community through events and support services, which now include the Imagination Library!”

As a result of this program, whole communities are developing confidence, and more positive attitudes towards reading. Families feel empowered to share stories with their children, and children are showing marked improvements in school readiness.

Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care services can be reflected long term in improved outcomes for children. Explore & Develop’s partnership with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has supplied a conduit for active and collaborative citizenry for the entire service community. The service appreciates the reciprocal enrichment that has been able to take place through the program.

Educational Leader Andrea Coffin says, “We get as much as we give to be honest. It helps us to write our programs, but it also gives us a sense of gratitude for the amazing literacy resources that we otherwise take for granted. It also helps us to build connections with our families around the shared focus of raising early literacy for our children at the service and at home as well as for communities in need.”

Libby hopes to see more early childhood services supporting children’s role as advocates for community and equity. “The children at Explore & Develop know how important this work is,” she shares.

“The Imagination Library strengthens their love of reading because it shows them just how incredibly special it is to be able to read, and to be able to share that love of reading with the community in a truly meaningful way. There’s nothing tokenistic about it at all.”

How you can get involved

To find out how your service can partner with the Imagination Library to make sure all children start school ready to learn, visit Imagination Library or email Alexandra Irving, Alexandra.Irving@unitedway.com.au, Imagination Library Partnerships Lead.


Author bio: Beth Sebesfi is an early education consultant, former early childhood teacher and mother of three young daughters. From time to time she shares with us the professional insights arising from her experiences as a consultant and personal experiences as a mother.

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