“Cool!” Penny Pape exclaims as she snuggles into a plush chair in front of the fireplace at Maquoketa Public Library.

Her 5-year-old hands immediately latch onto a paperback book with a young blond girl wearing a multicolored coat as she traipses through a field of flowers with a lunchbox in her hand.

“That’s my favorite!” Penny said, turning each colorful page and reading the words.

The book, “Coat of Many Colors,” was written by Dolly Parton and is one of the free books delivered straight to Penny’s mailbox as part of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.

“They love reading,” Jessica Pape said of her two daughters, Penny, and Rosie. “We read to them every night, and they love getting the books in the mail — it’s like opening a present for them.”

That book and millions more, addressed specifically to the child, is a free monthly gift given to more than 2 million children through Parton’s nationwide Imagination Library program, which includes affiliates in Jackson and Clinton counties.

About 680 of Jackson County’s 1,100 eligible youths are enrolled in the program, according to local organizer Caroline Bredekamp in Preston. In Clinton County, about 1,000 of the 3,500 eligible children are enrolled, according to Pat Henricksen, organizer for that county.

“(I feel) so happy to serve a third of the county,” Henricksen said of the Imagination Library program, which began in 2012 in Clinton County and in 2010 in Jackson. 

Across the world, more than 1.7 million kids are registered for the program, with more than 150 million free books gifted since the program’s inception.

Parton founded the Imagination Library in 1995 to promote reading and literature in the predominantly rural areas of Sevier County where Parton grew up. Literacy rates were low and school dropout rates were high.

“If you’re lucky enough and fortunate enough to help, you should help,” country music legend Parton said in a documentary about the program released last month.

The program was deemed a success and slowly spread across the United States.

‘The Little Engine That Could’

Getting started is fairly simple, Bredekamp said.

“If a child lives in Jackson County and is age birth to 5 years old, (the child) is eligible to receive a free book in the mail each month regardless of income,” she explained.

To register a child for the program, call or visit public libraries in Bellevue, Maquoketa, Preston, or Sabula. Sign-up includes the child’s name, birthday, and address. Or, register online at imaginationlibrary.com.

The first book — “The Little Engine That Could,” Parton’s favorite — should arrive within a couple months, Bredekamp said.

From that point until the child turns 5, a new, age-appropriate book will arrive via mail each month. Each mail delivery is addressed to the child, “because who doesn’t love getting happy surprises in the mail?” Bredekamp asked.

The final book is “Kindergarten, Here I Come,” to celebrate that milestone in the child’s life, and organizers hope it leads to lifelong learning and lifelong reading. Librarians also consider it a natural progression to a child getting a library card, Bredekamp said.

By that point, the child will have a library of about 60 books, about 90% of them hardcover, Bredekamp said. And a team of experts at the Dollywood Foundation reviews new books every year, replacing some titles to keep the vital program fresh and so siblings have diverse books in their collection.

“We’ve gotten the books since the girls were born,” Pape said. She learned of the program while still in the hospital after giving birth to Penny. She immediately signed up.

“It’s a really nice way for them to add to and grow their library, especially when you’re a mom with little kids,” she explained. “Both the girls now have their own bookshelves filled with books in their rooms.”

A survey sent to Clinton County’s program participants returned overwhelming support and positive comments from hundreds of parents.

“I think this is the best thing someone could ever do for a child. I’m grateful my children get to be a part of it,” one Clinton County parent wrote. “My kids love receiving a book in the mail and get so excited for story time. As a single mom the only time I really get with my kids while working two jobs is story time and it’s all thanks for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and staff!” 

“We read so much, some (of the books) are falling apart!” another survey respondent said. 

How you can help

Donations help pay the cost of books and postage. 

Clinton County needs about $26,000 a year to keep the Dolly Parton Imagination Library going, and Jackson needs about $18,000.

A $28 donation will provide 12 books — a year’s worth — for one child. A $140 donation will provide 60 books to one child, covering all five years he or she would be eligible. Donations of any amount are appreciated and are tax-deductible.

In Jackson County, donations should be sent to Community Foundation of Jackson County, P.O. Box 645, Maquoketa. Make the check payable to Dolly Parton Imagination Library or DPIL. 

In Clinton County, contributions may be sent to The LincolnWay Foundation, P.O. Box 225, DeWitt, IA 52742. Make checks payable to Dolly Parton Imagination Library of Clinton County.