Dolly Parton's Imagination Library is partnering with the state of Illinois to make every child in the state eligible to receive books by mail. Credit: Imagination Library

CHICAGO — The state is partnering with music icon Dolly Parton to help get more books in the hands of young kids.

The legendary country singer and philanthropist just inked a $1.6 million deal between the state and her reading program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

The program will mail “free, high-quality books” to Illinois children from birth to 5 years old whose families may not be able to afford buying new books. Imagination Library has already partnered with a few cities and community partners around the state, but the deal made with Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration will take the program state-wide.

Pritzker said in a statement the partnership will “bring Dolly to every doorstep.”

“As a longtime early childhood advocate, I’m incredibly excited for what’s to come,” Pritzker said in the statement. “These are some of the most crucial years for learning of a person’s lifetime, and this initiative will connect low-income families to resources their children will need for lifelong success.”

The Imagination Library was founded by Parton in 1995 and is now under the wing of her Dollywood Foundation, according to the news release. Parton started out giving books to kids in Sevier County, Tennessee, where she grew up. But the program took off and is now offered in five countries: the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland.

One in 10 children in the United States under the age of five are enrolled in Parton’s book program, according to her foundation. A child enrolled in the program at birth could receive 60 free books by the time they turn 6, according to the Dollywood Foundation.

The program offers braille and bilingual books and negotiates the wholesale price of the books while state and education partners handle the cost of shipping.

The Imagination Library has increased kindergarten readiness in children by 29 percent, according to the news release.

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton joined Pritzker Tuesday at a school in downstate Cahokia to announce the program and other investments in early childhood education.

“Thanks to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, children in every corner of Illinois can receive free books mailed directly to their home,” Stratton said in the statement. “I applaud early childhood advocates like Dolly Parton, who are helping our children find joy in reading and creating future generations of avid readers.”

The statewide program is still being rolled out, but some communities are already eligible for the program. To check current eligibility and register for the program, click here.

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