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How Champagne Selman Brought Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to Charlotte

Start them young

Dolly Parton's Imagination Library
The Smart Start of Mecklenburg County staff (from left: Lexii Louis, Alicia Porter, Champagne Selman and Katie Grant) in front of a Dolly Parton mural in NoDa. (Artwork by Dustin Moates)

I am a big supporter of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a program that provides children ranging from birth to 4 years old with free books. When Parton founded the program in 1995, she set out to deliver free books to young children living in Sevier County, Tennessee, where she grew up. The program was such a hit that Parton decided to expand its reach, joining forces with literacy organizations around the country in an effort to provide more children with free books. 

In 2015, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library formed a partnership with Smart Start of Mecklenburg County, a local literacy program that serves children up to 5 years old, and two years later, the partnership was expanded to serve families throughout North Carolina.

When news of the partnership was announced, Parton said, “I’m thrilled that my Imagination Library is going to be offered to so many children in North Carolina. Working together we can help children dream more, learn more, care more, and be more.” 

Champagne Selman took on the role of coordinating Charlotte’s participation in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in the first year of the partnership, and has continued in this role with remarkable success. I first met Selman a few years ago through my organizing the annual Seuss-a-Thon.

Dolly Parton's Imagination Library
Champagne Selman, literacy coordinator at Smart Start of Mecklenburg, has worked to help implement Dolly Partin’s Imagination Library in Charlotte. (Photo courtesy of Smart Start of Meck)

Selman participated in this event and we had a chance to talk about our mutual interest in promoting early childhood literacy efforts. She told me about her role as literacy coordinator of Smart Start’s partnership with Imagination Library, and I was intrigued. Since that conversation, I have taken an ongoing interest her literacy work in the Charlotte community.

I recently interviewed Selman about her involvement in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. She shared with me her admiration of Dolly Parton. As she put it, “Dolly didn’t let her fame take her from her roots. She remembered how hard life was for her father because he couldn’t read or write, and she was determined to do everything she could to bring books and reading to as many children as she possibly could.” 

Dolly Parton's Imagination Library
A peek inside one of the new Smart Start Meck little libraries . (Photo courtesy of Smart Start)

Selman said she relates on a personal level to Dolly’s mission to get books into the hands of young children.

“I am the oldest of seven children,” she said, “and having access to books is one of the ways that our mother was able to manage raising all of us. She taught all seven of us the alphabet by reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom to us. My interest in literacy education is tied to my own childhood experiences of reading books with my mother.”

In addition to coordinating the day-to-day operation of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Mecklenburg County, Selman engages in various outreach efforts to inform parents about this program. “I am so pleased that we now provide free books to over 29,000 children in our area. That’s 41% of the children birth to 4 years old in our county. But my goal is to reach all of the children.”

This spring, Selman and Smart Start has begun trying to do just that buy extending its outreach to include little libraries scattered around the Charlotte area. This April, they announced 11 little libraries interspersed throughout the city.

Dolly Parton's Imagination Library
Kids checking out a new little library from Smart Start Meck. (Photo courtesy of Smart Start)

“These libraries will allow us to distribute new books directly to children, and help us educate parents about this opportunity for their family.”

Selman’s official title at Smart Start is literacy coordinator, and it fits. She sees her work with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library through the lens of early literacy.

“Shared reading is a strong indicator of early literacy,” she told me, “and the Imagination Library makes it easier for families to come together around a book.”

Mark West is a UNC Charlotte professor who writes a weekly blog titled Storied Charlotte featuring untold stories of the city, like the one you just read. 

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