“My friends all call me the Dolly-Mama,” Dolly Parton writes in her cheerful new memoir, Dream More: Celebrate the Dreamer In You (Putnam; $19.95).
Seems there are two things people look to Parton for: advice and a song. She’s got both to share.
Dream More grew out of a commencement speech she gave at the University of Tennessee in 2009 but, in typical Dolly fashion, became so much more. The resulting book is an uplifting guide, using examples from Parton’s storied past, on how to take charge of your own life.
“I was a nervous wreck doing that speech in front of smart, diligent people, but the fact I was a local girl helped me some,” Parton, 66, said in a recent telephone interview. “Since it went so well Penguin wanted to put the speech out, but then David Dotson, the president of my Imagination Library literacy program, who helps me with my personal things, said, ‘Why don’t you expand the speech and elaborate in chapters’ the themes I used for the speech, ‘and donate the money to the Imagination Library?’ I usually do concerts to make up that money, but I wasn’t on tour so I threw in some words of wisdom to let people know how I conduct my business — not a hard thing to do — and it went fast.”
Parton’s Imagination Library also grew fast. The program started in 1996 in Sevier County, where she was born in Tennessee, the fourth of 12 kids. The goal was to give every child in the county one free book every month, mailed to their home and addressed to the child from the day they were born until they were ready to start kindergarten. Imagination Library now serves the United States, parts of Europe and Canada and 47 million books have been distributed so far.
“I find it ironic that I did not like school, but I would wind up spending my life working with kids,” Parton said, noting that her distaste for school had nothing to do with the teachers or the books she’d have to read. Rather, growing up poor meant she was often teased by the other kids, a period recounted in her landmark 1971 composition, Coat of Many Colors.
“Also, we couldn’t afford to take the books home because there were too many kids who would chew up the books or pee on them, and Daddy would say, ‘I can’t afford to pay for more books so don’t bring books in here!’
“But every child needs to learn to read and write, and if I can do something to help them learn more they can learn to like school,” Parton said. “It’s so important to get books into the hands of children.”
Now that the woman behind country and pop classics like 9 to 5, Jolene and I Will Always Love You has the title “Book Lady” as part of her legacy, Parton writes of her desire in Dream More:
“If I’m remembered 100 years from now, I hope it will be not for looks but for books. I don’t want to be responsible for any boobs in the future! I had to get that off my chest.”
— HOWARD COHEN
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