Arkansas Imagination Library: Impacting Childhood Literacy One Book at a Time

By the time a child reaches kindergarten, 85% of his or her brain has developed. That makes the first five years of a child’s life important to learning outcomes and school success, and it’s a time period the Arkansas Imagination Library strives to impact. 

The Arkansas Imagination Library is an extension of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which sends free books to children, aged 0 to 5, each month. Arkansas communities started county affiliates in 2002 and grew to deliver more than 16,000 books a month across 54 counties.  

In 2017, then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson provided funds to establish a statewide program, the Arkansas Imagination Library. Since then, the library’s reach has grown to all 75 counties and more than 74,000 books a month. 

“It was a strategy to close opportunity gaps, not only in counties without a program, but in counties who had a program, but did not have the infrastructure needed,” said Charlotte Parham, Ed.D., executive director of the library. “We didn’t want it to be based on the zip code you lived in. At the heart of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, is making books accessible to all kids and we have done that in Arkansas.” 

Parham is a long-time educator with more than 20 years in the K-12 system as a teacher, gifted specialist, principal and administrator.  

“One of the reasons that I actually moved to this early childhood space was because as a principal, I saw the opportunity gap of my students,” she said. “Typically, a child who is behind at a third-grade level is a kindergartener who was not exposed to literature.” 

The best way to make sure a third grader is reading at grade level, Parham says, is to make an impact in the zero to five years.  

“You hear a lot about achievement gaps in the K-12 space,” Parham said. “Well, if we close these opportunity gaps and gaps in zero to five, we will close achievement gaps in K-12. If you wait to K 12 You miss the opportunity to close opportunity gap.” 

The library partners with area schools to help achieve this goal. 

“School districts understand this is the most inexpensive way to address those achievement gaps seen later on in school,” Parham said.  

In addition to serving as the library’s executive director, Parham serves as principal investigator of research for the library at the University of Central Arkansas, which partners with the library. 

The library’s research has shown students who receive books from zero to five, score higher in kindergarten readiness assessments than students who did not. Further, children who were exposed to books through the library are less likely to be retained in kindergarten and perform better from kindergarten through third grade than children who were not enrolled in the program. 

“We have to impact the years where most of the brain development is occurring, that’s your foundation,” Parham said. “Every house is built in the K-12 system, but the foundation is zero to five. It’s always easier to build a house with a solid foundation.” 

An added benefit seen in research in other states is that enrollment in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library increased adult participation in literacy programs. 

“It was a motivating factor for parents,” Parham said. “If an adult cannot read, that’s something they are going to hide, it’s not something they are going to advertise. We found that spending time with their children and reading to them was a motivating factor and encouraged them to enroll in adult literacy programs.” 

It’s part of the two-generational approach that is central to the library’s success, Parham said. 

“We aren’t sending books to a two-month-old, we’re sending them to the child’s parents,” she said. “It puts them in a better position to help their children and themselves.” 

As an educator and researcher, Parham understands that there are many factors that can impact student achievement, but the Arkansas Imagination Library provides a tangible way to do something proven to impact results, she said.  

“In a society where there are so many things that are beyond our control, this gives me hope because it is something communities can do,” she said. “And the research says it matters.” 

Traveling the state, Parham is encouraged by the work put in by communities across the state to the benefit of the library and children. 

“I’m amazed at the heart of all our communities in Arkansas and the willingness of people to do the work required to better our state,” Parham said. “That’s just so encouraging to see our communities come together like that.”