Dolly Parton is teaming up with Maine to give free books to young kids.
Country star Dolly Parton speaks via livestream to the attendees of the National Governors Association conference in Portland on Friday. She was introducing a Dolly's Library program for Maine. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Maine is teaming up with country music legend Dolly Parton to give young children free books.

That program was announced Friday morning when Parton joined via livestream the National Governor’s Association conference in Portland.

“We know the simple act of reading to a child stimulates brain development, reduces stress and anxiety, builds vocabulary, and develops the literacy skills they’ll need to succeed in school and beyond,” Gov. Janet Mills said Friday. “Today, we are taking another step forward to help make that happen by delivering books free of charge to Maine kids. Maine is proud to join the family of states that participate in the Imagination Library. On behalf of all Maine children who will be served by this program in the years to come, I thank the one-and-only Dolly Parton.”

Under the program, every Maine child from birth to age 5 will be eligible to have free “high-quality, age appropriate” books mailed to them every month. The governor’s office said the Maine Imagination Library aims to inspire children with a love of reading.

Maine is the 13th state to participate in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program, which started in 1995 to distribute books in the Tennessee county where Parton grew up. It now spans five countries.

The Maine Imagination Library will be assisted by $200,000 included in the state’s most recent budget, and will be run by the Maine State Library.

“The Maine State Library is excited to be able to administer this program that will eventually connect tens of thousands of families and Maine children with wonderful books sent right to their homes,” State Librarian James Ritter said. “Working with Maine’s libraries and other organizations, we will have the opportunity to foster and grow generations of young readers through the Imagination Library, and for every child that learns to read, we know we are helping to build a community of lifelong learners.”

It’s the latest effort from the Mills administration to boost childhood literacy in Maine. The administration has invested $10 million to create and expand prekindergarten programs and is working to revamp the state’s literacy plan.

In 2019, about 57 percent of fourth-grade students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch scored below proficiency reading levels, while 33 percent of students who are not eligible for free or reduced lunch scored below proficiency reading levels, according to the governor’s office.

Maine is ranked fifth in the nation for the percentage of parents with children age 5 or younger who read to their children every day, with nearly 47 percent doing so.