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City, foundations will restart Dolly Parton book program for Pittsburgh kids

A man speaks behind a podium next to a cardboard cutout.
Kate Giammarise
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh City Councilman Bobby Wilson, flanked by a cutout of Dolly Parton, announces children in the city of Pittsburgh can continue to receive books through the famed singer's program.

A program that mails free books monthly to young children in Pittsburgh will restart, thanks to an infusion of foundation and public funds, officials announced Thursday.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library mails a book every month to children enrolled in the program; it is open to kids from birth to age 5.

After being in place in Pittsburgh since 2019, the program had halted for most city kids earlier this year after initial rounds of philanthropic funding had run out. (A small group of children in three zip codes were still eligible to participate.)

But the program is now open to all Pittsburgh kids ages five and under again.

“Having access to books early in life unlocks a circle of possibilities,” said Kathy Buechel, executive director of the Benter Foundation. “When that book arrives home, addressed to a young child, a new world of language, pictures and stories opens before them. Books build vocabulary. They help children start school, ready to learn and succeed.”

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The Benter Foundation and the Mary Hillman Jennings Foundation are providing an initial $64,000 in funds for the effort, and are still seeking other partners, Buechel said. Nonprofit Reading Ready Pittsburgh will aid in administration of the program at first, and then a city council staff member will, officials said.

“I'm particularly excited both as the deputy mayor, but also as a father of a young child, to be standing here today to reactivate this important program and this important investment in the future of our community here in Pittsburgh,” said Deputy Mayor Jake Pawlak.

Imagination Library launched in 1995 and has since grown to cover numerous cities, counties, states and is even in other countries. The Dollywood Foundation negotiates wholesale pricing for the books to help keep costs down, and local partners cover the costs of mailing and books.

The program mails more than 2.4 million books a month, said Lauren Wirt, regional director at the Dollywood Foundation.

“The most successful Dolly Parton's Imagination Library programs have many partners, and I'm proud to get to stand here with all of them,” Wirt said.

Families who were previously enrolled in the program will not need to re-enroll and should start receiving books again automatically. New families can sign up here.

Thursday’s event took place in front of the North Side statue of Col. James Anderson; a fact several speakers remarked on. In the 1800’s Anderson opened his personal library to the children of Allegheny City, among them was a young Andrew Carnegie.

“It is in the spirit of Colonel James Anderson and Andrew Carnegie and the great generosity they showed providing books to children … that we are gathered here today,” said Councilman Bobby Wilson.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.