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Stella Parton Tells Off Kentucky Lawmaker for ‘Age-Appropriate’ Remarks on Dolly’s Kids’ Book Program

Dolly Parton in Netflix's Heartstrings.

On March 3, Stella Parton, one of Dolly Parton’s sisters, called out Kentucky state Senator Stephen Meredith after he expressed supposed fears of sending “inappropriate books” to children through the state’s partnership with Dolly Parton‘s Imagination Library. If you were wondering, the answer is no, there’s no recent scandal in this reading program over the age-appropriateness of the books. This is about (incorrectly, insidiously) labeling inclusive children’s titles (some decades old) as pornographic, sexual, or racist.

In addition to defending her sister’s program on Twitter, Parton told WVLT, “Here’s the thing, my father was illiterate. It plagued him his entire life because he was not afforded the opportunity to get an education. We all feel, all 11 of us, we all feel so gifted with being able to read. For anyone to question anything as well-intentioned as what my sister has done, no, I was not going to stand for it.”

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library is a program that works to get books into the hands of kids up to five years old, within the U.S., Ireland, the U.K., Canada, and Australia. They function in the U.S. mainly by working with local affiliates and non-profits that fund and enroll local families. In turn, The Imagination Library ensures that the kids receive a book each month until they turn five. Yes, this could mean up to 60 books in total!

The Imagination Library works through 5 countries, however this is how it works in the U.S. (Image: Imagination Library.)
(Imagination Library)

In summer 2021, the state of Kentucky began to participate in this program, and now, in 2022, they’ve held a meeting to finalize details on a bill to ensure future funding for the program in their state, SB 164.

Meredith’s “concerns”

Republican Kentucky state lawmaker Stephen Meredith, whose background is notably not in education or a related social science, held reservations: “This may be a strong statement to many, but on page one, section two, we talk about ‘age-appropriate books.’ And I think that certainly is warranted given today’s environment, but I wonder if that’s enough? Should it be subject-appropriate as well? Because I have seen some literature that’s considered preschool that quite true, I think it’s inappropriate content for children that age.” He then asked if there would be any consideration for changing the language of the bill to address his concerns.

The Imagination Library selects its books through a committee made up of writers/artists, educators, librarians, and those specializing in early education, and their rubrics, by age and theme/concept, are both available online. None of that matters to Stephen Meredith, of course, as SB 164 cosponsor Morgan McGarvey even pointed out in the meeting that the bill already included language about books being “age-appropriate.” Meredith was seemingly just looking for any excuse to latch onto conservative furor over kids reading about anything that doesn’t align with conservative political views.

While Meredith eventually voted for SB 164 in the meeting, he did imply that leadership within the Imagination Library could change, as if that is a bad thing and doesn’t already happen—and as if his nonsense “subject-appropriate” addition would be any more helpful in that situation than existing language about age-appropriateness. While Meredith’s concerned citizen act may not seem like political grandstanding on the surface, he knew what he was doing in bringing up controversy around kids’ books in “today’s environment”—controversy that is manufactured and overblown thanks to the help of well-funded organizations like No Left Turns, Moms for Liberty, and Parents Defending Education.

The books he’s afraid of

Given Meredith’s seeming agreement with the latest conservative outrage, it’s likely many of the books offered by the Imagination Library are exactly what he wants to keep kids from reading. I browsed the Imagination Library social media for a while, and (in addition to being a delight), it didn’t take long to find the types of books and authors that have faced attempted or successful bans. For example, they shared an image of Mathew Cherry’s Hair Love. This children’s book about a girl learning to love her hair with her dad’s encouragement was among the 300+ books conservatives attempted to ban in Pennsylvania back in November.

Another one is Families Belong, by Dan Saks and art by Brookie Smart. There’s no news on any bans on this particular title, but Saks and Smart’s titles like Families Can (a book about a same-sex parent home) have come under attack.

The language used in the meeting was vague enough that anyone not paying attention to increased censorship challenges (decrying Critical Race Theory, the sexualization of children, and more nonsense) might see that as sensible. It’s not, because most of these books are under attack after just sharing the life experiences of those marginalized by their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or citizenship status. Age-appropriate and age relevancy can be determined by a parent for their own kids. However, like other tax-funded programs, when talking about a large group of children, we should rely on experts just like the Imagination Library.

(via Twitter & Newsweek, image: Tina Rowden/Netflix)

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(she/her) Award-winning artist and blogger with experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time watching movies, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Balder's Gate 3, Apex Legends, and CS:GO.