Dolly Parton’s Free Children’s Books Program Accused of Perpetuating a ‘White’ ‘Cis-Gendered’ ‘Heteronormative’ American Norm 

The author argues that there are too many white characters and animal characters in Ms. Parton’s books at the expense of ‘representation.’

Ron Jenkins/Getty Images
Dolly Parton performs during halftime in the game between the Washington Commanders and the Dallas Cowboys in Texas. Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill academic has been awarded a large cash sum and a PhD for her work in portraying one of America’s most beloved icons, Dolly Parton, as a purveyor of ‘white privilege’ for sending out free picture books to children between the ages of zero and five. 

Jennifer Stone, who received her PhD in May from UNC, says Ms. Parton’s books are culturally insensitive because they perpetuate stereotypes about “literacy, race, class, gender, and dis/ability.” 

Ms. Parton’s program, called Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, works with state and local governments to fund free books for young children. Those parents who sign up for the program receive one picture book every month for children between the ages of zero and five. Since she launched the program in 1995, more than 238 million books have been given away

Ms. Stone says Ms. Parton’s choice of books are problematic. “Inconsistent messaging regarding books and reading was conveyed,” Ms. Stone writes in an abstract to her dissertation. “Three inductively derived themes: reading to succeed, living the American dream, and perfecting parenting revealed complex intersections of discourses of power that resulted in oppressive childism, which operated to subjugate children and to privilege a White, middle-class, cis-gendered, heteronormative, able-bodied American norm.”

Ms. Stone notes that between birth and arriving in kindergarten, there are “millions” of children across America who received more than 60 books over the course of five years, who then arrive at their first school experience with the same library of picture books as their peers. 

Just one example Ms. Stone points out about the problems with Ms. Parton’s free book program includes the idea that reading is imparted on children by “good” parents and that those parents who don’t instill a joy for reading in their own kids are somehow bad. Ms. Stone says it is “counterproductive” to shame parents who don’t read with their kids.

“These messages about reading seem counterproductive to nurturing a community literacy environment in which reading is perceived as a joyful habit that parents and children from all sociocultural backgrounds share,” Ms. Stone writes.

At another point, Ms. Stone makes the argument that there are too many white characters and animal characters in Ms. Parton’s books at the expense of “representation.”

“When White families see only themselves in picture books, they are indoctrinated into our existing culture of systemic oppression and potentially enter their communities with narcissistic and racist biases about their positions within society,” Ms. Stone writes. “These biased misrepresentations might go unrecognized by the families reading them, as well as those creating them, because the publishing industry, itself, is dominated by White, straight, cis-gendered, abled women.”

Not only did Ms. Stone receive her PhD for the work, but she was given the James J. Gallagher Dissertation Award according to the university’s website. The award is given to those PhD graduates whose research … is relevant to child and family policy for young children, children with disabilities, or children with gifts and talents.” The prize includes $4,500 cash. 

“I’m curious about what messages are conveyed in those books,” Ms. Stone said in an interview after receiving the award. “Rather than thinking that I need to prove that book gifting works, which was my original impetus in my doctoral studies, I’m curious about the actual impacts of giving books out in large quantities to families.”

“When all members of a community share the same set of 60 books, which is what happens with the Imagination Library, it’s important to make sure that we’re challenging any biases in those books and including any people who might be missing,” she continued.

The New York Sun

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