Dolly Parton: Dreams Begin in Books

 

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“Inspiring kids to love to read became my mission.” – Dolly Parton

I waited over six months for my phone interview with Dolly Parton. When we finally spoke, it felt surreal when she said in her familiar twang, “Is this a girl named Sue?” Talking to this American icon was like having a conversation with someone that I intimately knew but had never met. When she asked me what book I was reading, I told her I would get to that at the end of the interview. With only 15 minutes allotted to question her, I wanted to make sure I didn’t run out of time.

Most people are familiar with Dolly’s multifaceted career. Truth be told, she is almost as well known for her looks as she is for her singing and songwriting. She jokes that “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Her fans have always seen right past the superficial and connected to her heart. And she has a huge one. 

One of Dolly’s proudest accomplishments is one of which many devotees are unaware. Inspired by her father’s inability to read or write, Dolly established her Imagination Library program for children living in the county in which she grew up. Her vision was to foster a love of reading among preschoolers by mailing them a specially selected book each month. Today that program spans four countries. Since its inception in 1995, it has given away more than 133 million books.

Dolly’s love of books began with her mother reading her the Bible as they cuddled. She was the fourth child born to her parents, Avie and Robert. Dolly and her eleven siblings were raised in a one room cabin in the hills of East Tennessee. What her family lacked in material things, they made up for in love.

Knowing of Dolly’s spirituality, my first question to her was whether she thought her childhood was illustrative of the Bible verse, Romans 8:28. “And we know that all things work together for the good to those who love God.” On the surface, her father’s illiteracy denoted adversity, but it could be looked upon as a gift in disguise. I wanted to know, had he been able to read, would there be an Imagination Library?

“You know what? That is a very good point! And it is so strange that you quoted that scripture. I swear to you that today I was looking out the window and I was thinking of that very scripture, and for you to repeat it is very odd. But you’re right – if Daddy had been able to read and write, the Imagination Library probably would not have happened.”

Watching her father struggle deeply affected Dolly. She remembers her mother having to sign her school papers because her father was too embarrassed to try and scribble his name on them. Creating a program to support literacy was the best way she could honor him. Robert Parton was prouder of Dolly’s Imagination Library than of any of her other accomplishments. He loved that children referred to her as the “book lady.” 

“We thought Daddy was the smartest person in the world, and he was! That’s why I think the Imagination Library meant the world to him. It gave him an outlet. He really had wonderful ideas and input for me because he knew how it felt not to be able to read. We were never ashamed of Daddy. He was sometimes ashamed that he couldn’t read and write but we never made him feel like that ‘cause he was the best.” 

Her father’s illiteracy wasn’t the only thing working together for the good in Dolly’s life. In many ways, growing up poor was the perfect setup for her to be the “book lady.” The struggles of her childhood made her keenly aware that not having books in the home often translated into feelings of unworthiness. A child may be brilliant, but without being read to, they will be behind in school. Part of her Imagination Library’s mission is for all children to know that they matter. One of her most famous songs, The Coat of Many Colors, is about her experience of not fitting in when she was a grade schooler. She feels fortunate to have been surrounded by a love that softened the blow.

“Having such a loving, accepting mother made us all feel special. All little kids were special in our world. If I hadn’t had the good mother I did, ‘The Coat of Many Colors,’ and all the things that we do for kids probably wouldn’t have happened. So I do think that life can be part of a pattern for good for those that do believe.”

Because she is such an advocate for children, it is a little surprising that Dolly and her husband, Carl, never had any of their own. Although, if you look at it from a higher perspective it makes perfect sense.

“I have thought about that often through the years. If I had had children of my own, I probably wouldn’t have been able or willing to be as devoted, and spend as much time with other peoples’ children. So I really do think that was meant to be as well. That, you know, we didn’t have kids so everybody’s kids could be mine.”

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I painted this in 1999. The girls in it were supposed to represent a young Dolly and Oprah. I knew that, like me, books had been the launching pad for their dreams.

Without being exposed to books, it’s hard to say if Dolly’s career would have unfolded as it did. Books fueled her imagination. They showed her a world that she wouldn’t have known existed without them. She credits them for helping her to dream a bigger dream.

“As a child I loved books. You know, I don’t ever remember learning to read. It just seemed like I always could. Because we were poor and there were so many of us, we didn’t have books outside of the Bible. I used to love the smell of books, the touch of books, and the pictures that I saw in books. I was so fascinated about the world beyond the mountains and just what all that was about. I think books really trigger the imagination of a child. I mean, what could be more exciting than the things that pictures and words can create in a child’s mind?”

Over the years, Dolly has learned that books do more than educate and entertain her. Reading makes an opening for the light to come in. By absorbing the author’s creativity she fuels her own.

“When I read, I think, ‘Oh my gosh! How did they ever think of that?” I’m just amazed at the gift that God has given them. When something they’ve written touches me I think, ‘I hope I can do that with my writing.’ I really try to get into what they’re thinking and where their heart is.”Dolly-Parton-Childrens-Album450A big part of Dolly’s success is her ability to see life through the eyes of a child. In 2017 she used that gift to make a children’s album, “I Believe in You.” All of its proceeds benefit her Imagination Library. On the cover she is pictured in a blue gown with butterfly wings. Butterflies carry a special significance for her. She still recalls wandering off and chasing them in the fields when she was young.

“I always loved butterflies! They were so beautiful and seemed so harmless. They’d just flit around, and I kind of related to them in my own personality, I think. Just trying to be colorful and gentle, and curious. You know the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly is something I identify with. Come out of your shell and shine. Be all the colors you can be! I’m a girl of many colors.”

With that last answer, Dolly was being summoned by her team. My fifteen minutes with her were up. Before disconnecting, I answered her question about what I was reading, “Right now the book on my nightstand is a biography of Joan of Arc. She was a true, true badass. Her connection to God gave her the strength to do what she felt called to do. Kind of like you, Dolly.”

She laughed, “Lord, I’m no saint! I’m a scoundrel and a saint. I don’t claim to be anything other than a person that’s trying to do as much good as they can. I’m more like the ‘Little Engine That Could.’ I thought I could. I thought I could, and I did!”

That must be all it takes. One little, colorful person sharing their light with another and then another and then another…. And before you know it the whole sky is lit up.  

*Watch Dolly read “The Little Engine that Could” on “Goodnight With Dolly.”

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*Coming up next: Grammy award winning, singer-songwriter, Brandi Carlile

Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

It’s Picture Book Month: Give the Gift of Wonder

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Children are made readers on the laps of their parents —Emilie Buchwald

November is National Picture Book Month. It’s a gentle reminder of the importance of reading printed picture books to the children in our lives. I wish I could tell you what being read to, nestled in my mother’s arms, meant to me, but I didn’t have that kind of mom. What I can impart is the experience of reading to my own kids. It was routine for me to enjoy books with them before they fell asleep. The books I picked out helped them get to know me, and the ones they chose showed me who they were. Our eldest, Rob, was a big fan of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express. To this day, no one enjoys the magic of Christmas more than him. One of his sister Bridget’s favorite books was Tales for the Perfect Child by Florence Parry Heide. It was funny, and I suspect Bridget identified with the book’s theme of using brain power to outsmart others to get out of doing chores. Our youngest, Brian, was lulled to sleep nearly every night while I read Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon to him. Of course, Good Night Moon was the first book he thought of buying when his son was born. Picture books fueled my children’s capacity to dream and wonder. Pouring over them together was our time to bond.

Isn’t it love that keeps us breathing? Isn’t it love we’re sent here for?—Bonnie Raitt, You

As a young mother, I knew I wanted to illustrate picture books but had no idea one day I would write them too. If I had known that, I would’ve written Love You to the Moon and Back for my kids. Instead, I will be able to read it to my grandchildren. It’s now available on Amazon. Getting the book into print is a dream come true for me. I wrote it so parents and grandparents would have a tangible way to give their little ones a sense of their all encompassing love. It’s message will reassure them throughout their lives. Knowing we are loved is what opens up doors and windows to let the heart fly free. It’s the only lasting gift we can ever give our children.

Love You to the Moon and Back

My daughter-in-law reading “Love you to the Moon and Back” to my grandson

*Click here to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5×7 print!

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

It’s Picture Book Month: Give the Gift of Wonder

Mabel Rose - Version 2

Children are made readers on the laps of their parents —Emilie Buchwald

November is National Picture Book Month. It’s a gentle reminder of the importance of reading printed picture books to the children in our lives. I wish I could tell you what being read to, nestled in my mother’s arms, meant to me, but I didn’t have that kind of mom. What I can impart is the experience of reading to my own kids. It was routine for me to enjoy books with them before they fell asleep. The books I picked out helped them get to know me, and the ones they chose showed me who they were. Our eldest, Rob, was a big fan of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express. To this day, no one enjoys the magic of Christmas more than him. One of his sister Bridget’s favorite books was Tales for the Perfect Child by Florence Parry Heide. It was funny, and I suspect Bridget identified with the book’s theme of using brain power to outsmart others to get out of doing chores. Our youngest, Brian, was lulled to sleep nearly every night while I read Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon to him. Of course, Good Night Moon was the first book he thought of buying when his son was born last April. Picture books fueled my children’s capacity to dream and wonder. Pouring over them together was our time to bond.

Isn’t it love that keeps us breathing? Isn’t it love we’re sent here for?—Bonnie Raitt, You

As a young mother, I knew I wanted to illustrate picture books but had no idea one day I would write them too. If I had known that, I would’ve written Love You to the Moon and Back for my kids. Instead, I will be able to read it to my grandchildren. It’s now available on Amazon. Getting the book into print is a dream come true for me. I wrote it so parents and grandparents would have a tangible way to give their little ones a sense of their all encompassing love. It’s message will reassure them throughout their lives. Knowing we are loved is what opens up doors and windows to let the heart fly free. It’s the only lasting gift we can ever give our children.

My daughter-in-law reading "Love you to the Moon and Back" to my grandson

My daughter-in-law reading “Love you to the Moon and Back” to my grandson

*Click here to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5×7 print!

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Sojourner’s Truth

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“Every time God’s children have thrown away fear in the pursuit of honesty, trying to communicate, understood or not – miracles have happened.” – Duke Ellington

Whenever I think about the life of Sojourner Truth I’m inspired and amazed. She was a steadfast woman who spoke what was in her heart, no matter what. She knew she was disadvantaged but also knew she had a power greater than herself at her fingertips. She trusted in that power and accessed it to help spread a message that was the beginning of turning our country (as she would say) right side up.

In 1797, she was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in Ulster county, New York. She grew up working from dawn until dusk for her master. She slept on a cellar floor and at age 9 was sold with a flock of sheep for $100.00. She suffered all the indignities of being owned by someone until one day in 1827, she walked out the door never to return.

When Isabella was 46, she felt a calling to spread God’s truth so strongly she couldn’t resist. To do this she would have to travel across the land, so she thought it fitting to change her name to Sojourner. While in bondage, she had been sold four different times. With each new master came a new last name. As a free woman, she decided to choose her own. Knowing she was God’s child, she took on the name Truth. And thus began Sojourner Truth’s public life.

She began preaching to predominantly white audiences on the evils of slavery. She would not, could not be hushed. She spoke with authority when sharing the humiliation and abuse slaves endured. She was close to six feet tall and stood erect and dignified. As soon as she grasped that in many ways women were as oppressed as slaves, she became an advocate for women’s rights. She could see that when her people were freed she would then be under the black man’s domination, just as white women were with their husbands.

Although she couldn’t read or write, she had a fine mind and a sharp wit. Sojourner saw her blackness, being female and uneducated not as deficiencies but the perfect traits needed to bring about God’s plan to change the world. Her illiteracy made her memorize scripture and forced her to go within for her answers. She knew she wasn’t capable of writing a speech. Her only hope was to ask her Father in heaven to speak through her. At the beginning of one lecture she confided to her audience, “Children, I come like the rest of you to hear what I have to say.”

In 1851, Sojourner attended a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio. Where without preparation, she delivered her most famous speech, Ain’t I a Woman? While standing at the podium, she addressed a man in the crowd who had shouted that women shouldn’t have as many rights as men because Christ wasn’t a woman. She answered him, “You say Jesus was a man, so that means God favors men over women. Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him.” After she concluded her thoughts, applause filed the room. Sojourner Truth had stopped the naysayers in their tracks. Her words burned like fire. She was a wonder to behold.

Sojourner went on to meet presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant. She developed a friendship with fellow human rights activist Harriet Tubman. She tried to vote on two occasions, but was turned away both times. She died in 1883 at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan.

When her death was imminent Sojourner said, “I’m not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.” Today that star still hangs in the sky to illuminate the way for women everywhere. At that the end of her Ohio speech, she informed her audience, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.” Amen.

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A portrait that Sojourner Truth sold to finance her speaking tours in the 1860s.

Click here to see a moving reenactment of Sojourner Truth’s speech, Ain’t I a Women? by actress Alfre Woodard.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Dreams Begin in Books

Dreams Begin in Books

There is no substitute for a book in the life of a child.
– Mary Ellen Chase, Recipe for a Magic Childhood (1952)

Dreams Begin in Books

When I was a little girl, I decided the most wonderful things in the world were books. They were my friends. They kept me company when I was lonely and showed me a bigger world when I felt like I didn’t fit in. Around age ten is when Little Women captured me. I loved Jo March. She was self-conscious but pushed the boundaries of being proper anyway. She was a bold, outspoken dreamer. She revealed myself to me. I wanted to grow up to be Jo March but with a paintbrush.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, had modeled Jo after herself. Louisa was an ordinary woman who lived and breathed. In reading about the real Jo, I made the connection that art is created by flesh and blood. It comes through everyday people, to inspire us all. And so began my dream to become an artist…

In honor National Reading Month, Auryn Inc. is giving one of their children’s book apps away every day in March. My app Love You to the Moon & Back will be free on March 22nd. You can get a link to the offer by going to Apps by Auryn’s Facebook page on that day. I will send out a reminder on the 22nd to everyone who has signed up for my blog.

Share the love of reading with a child. Ignite their imagination.

Rachel looked like she was plucked from the 1940's. She had the perfect look for the vintage feel I was going for.

Rachel looked like she was plucked from the 1940’s. She had the perfect look for the vintage feel I was going for.

Ashley lived down the street from me. She was a delight and had no problem dropping everything to model for me.

Ashley lived down the street from me. She was a delight and had no problem dropping everything to model for me.

A detail of the original art. In it is a huge mistake I missed until a third grader pointed it out. During a school visit she asked me why the book cover was backwards. I couldn't believe that I hadn't noticed that. A clear case of missing the forest for the trees.

A detail of the original art. In it is a huge mistake I missed until a third grader pointed it out. During a school visit she asked me why the book cover was backwards. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t noticed that. A clear case of missing the forest for the trees.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved

www.sueshanahan.com