Dolly Parton Says Kids Don’t Have to ‘Whoop and Holler’ To Be Heard

In an exclusive interview, the country music icon talks about teaching confidence and her new children's book 'Dolly Parton's Billy the Kid Makes It Big.'

Dolly Parton knows a whole lot about making a splash and she’s encouraging kids to chase their own dreams with her latest children’s book, Billy the Kid Makes It Big. The music icon offers lessons on self-confidence, bullying, and why good always wins with help from her adorable little friend, Billy the Kid–her manager Danny Nozell’s French bulldog, whom she calls her god-dog.

“I’m just always with Billy and he loves me like I love him because I’m the chicken lady; I’ve always got chicken,” jokes Parton.

Billy, who even has his own Instagram following, was the perfect character for the book, since “children love animals,” adds Parton. “I just think that it's good to use animals to speak to the children.”

In the book, aimed at kids ages 4-7, bulldog Billy heads to Nashville, Tennessee, to fulfill his dreams of being a country singer. But the four-legged aspiring star meets some bullies along the way and needs help to rebuild his confidence. It’s a lesson Parton tries to instill in the younger generation. “I've always just thought to encourage children to have belief in themselves,” says Parton, who also authored two other children’s books–1996’s Coat of Many Colors and 2009’s I Am a Rainbow.

Dolly Parton with her dog

Even if a kid is shy, the “Jolene” singer believes they can shine with the help of a good adult support system. “You just have to work with them a little extra and say, ‘Everybody’s not loud. You don’t have to just shout and whoop and holler to be heard,’” she says. “‘Just know that you’re good and you’ve got your own little space, your own little world, and you're your own little person, and just learn all of the things that you're good at and exercise those things.’”

Dolly Parton

I've always just thought to encourage children to have belief in themselves.

— Dolly Parton

Building that self-confidence is an important way to prevent bullying, another topic explored in the book. Parton has spoken about her experience with bullying as one of 12 siblings growing up in poverty in Tennessee—something she sings about in her 1971 song “Coat of Many Colors.” Through Billy the Kid Makes It Big, Parton sends an anti-bullying message “because making fun ain’t funny,” she says.

Dolly Parton's Billy the Kid Makes It Big

The new children’s book is yet another way the Grammy Award-winning star is helping children learn to love to read. Through her Imagination Library book gifting program, Parton has given more than 200 million free books to children up to 5 years old in the U.S. and abroad. It’s a program she started in 1995 in honor of her father. “He was just a good daddy all around and a good man and he worked hard,” she says. But like many people who live in poverty in rural areas around the country, explains Parton, he didn’t learn to read and write. Data shows more than half of adults in America currently lack literacy proficiency, and it varies greatly from county to county in the South and West.

“I knew that was kind of an embarrassment to him, so I said, ‘Why don’t we start a program for children like that?” Parton says. The Imagination Library went from being a local program to covering all of Tennessee before it went global. “It's just really important to me that kids know how to read at a very early age, in their most impressionable years, because after you get to being older you feel like it's something you can't learn,” she says. “But it is. And my dad felt so proud of the Imagination Library.”

Dolly Parton

That's what you do, you just keep on keeping on, trying this, trying that, until you make it work.

— Dolly Parton

When she was a kid, Parton says she loved to read anything she could get her hands on. But one book in particular she adored was The Little Engine That Could, a classic children’s book about confidence. “Faith and belief are two mighty forces,” she says. “And I often say that I'm a little engine that did.” 

Take it from an icon like Parton, who says it’s all about staying on your path and testing the waters. “That's what you do, you just keep on keeping on, trying this, trying that, until you make it work,” she says. “And if a particular thing don't work, there's always elements of that that you can apply to something else and that then might be the thing that does work.”

It’s that powerful message Parton hopes kids will grasp from Billy the Kid Makes It Big, which shows you can stumble on your journey but perseverance can take you where you need to be. “Things can happen,” she says. “But if you believe that you belong, then you belong.”

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