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Hello Dolly, this is London

Backwoods Barbie Ms Parton has bounced into Britain to launch her children's book scheme.The lights dimmed. The music began. The spotlights shone. And a diminutive figure in rhinestones and sequins stepped on to the stage.

"Hello there," Dolly Parton called out, all southern vowels and country twang. "It's great to be in Rotherham today."

There was a pause. "Er, London," said a quiet voice at the front of the stage.

"What's that?" Dolly called back. "Didn't I say it properly? Rother-ham? Rother-um?"

"London," the voice said again. "You're in London today. Rotherham's tomorrow."

"Oh," Dolly replied, barely batting a false eyelash. "Well, I was reading in the paper that someone is mad at me in Rotherham. So I'm glad I'm in London."

The idea of Dolly Parton going to Rotherham is slightly unnerving. On the one hand, there is the platinum-bouffanted country singer, renowned for her large voice and even larger chest. On the other, there is the South Yorkshire mill town, known for producing England goalkeeper David Seaman and the Chuckle Brothers.

But, this week, Dolly Parton travelled to England specifically to visit Rotherham, which is to implement the first British version of her Imagination Library programme.

Originally conceived in 1996, the library was intended to improve literacy in Ms Parton's impoverished home county in Tennessee. Each month, every child under the age of five receives a free book. The aim is for reading to become an everyday part of their home lives.

Eleven years later, the scheme has spread to 43 states across the US, as well as to Canada. And, this week, it arrived in Rotherham.

Rob Hannon, president of the Rotherham Chamber of Commerce, was among those who decided that they would donate pound;150,000 to finance the project.

"The current standard of literacy among children is appalling," Mr Hannon said. "But if kids have better literacy by the time they get to school, they do much better there and in business in the future. So it's a long-term investment."

Not everyone in Rotherham has been as enthusiastic. Local councillors were irritated when a meeting was moved to accommodate the singer. Others dismissed it as "a storm in a double-D cup".

This was what Ms Parton referred to as she launched the scheme at the Savoy Hotel in London, the day before venturing to Rotherham.

She began the event with a rendition of her famous hit, "Nine To Five", before breaking into an explanation of the importance of reading from nought to five.

"My own father couldn't read nor write," she said. "But 'course he was a smart, smart person, and often wondered what he could have done if he could read and write.

"The most important thing is to put books in the hands of children because if you can read, you can self-educate."

The initial book that British children will receive is Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The first three were presented to bemused Rotherham toddlers, brought on stage to meet Ms Parton.

"I'm the book lady," she told them. One of the toddlers promptly started chewing on his copy.

The boys' parents, though, were pleased with the gift. John Devey, father of four-year-old twins, said: "Books weren't around when I were young. But I believe reading should start at home."

Bronwen Watson, family learning manager for Rotherham council, agreed. "Local parents lack confidence to join the library," she said.

"This way, children get books in the house every month. Then speaking, listening and loving books will become second nature."

Ms Parton, meanwhile, smiled benevolently over the scene. "I'm a backwoods Barbie in push-up bra and heels," she said. "But I'm real where it counts."


The Imagination Library originated in Sevier county, Tennessee, where Dolly Parton was raised.

From birth to the age of five, participating children receive a book a month. All social and economic backgrounds are eligible.

Communities wanting to introduce the scheme are given a five-year budget and must find donors from local businesses, civic groups and education foundations.

The books are selected by a committee of teachers, literacy consultants and child development experts, and sent out to children.

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