Gov. Mills joins Dolly Parton's effort to deliver free books to preschoolers

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Jul. 15—With Dolly Parton watching via video link, Gov. Janet Mills announced Maine will be joining the singer-songwriter's Imagination Library, an early-childhood literacy initiative that mails 2 million free books to babies and children under the age of 5 every month.

The program — which will be locally administered by the Maine State Library — aims to send 106,000 books from Parton's title collection to more than 14,000 Maine children by the end of 2023 in an effort to boost young children's development and literacy. Mills made the announcement before 18 other governors at a meeting of the National Governors Association in Portland on Friday morning.

"When they get a book personally in the mail it's theirs and it elevates their self-esteem and, like you Mrs. Parton, it brings joy into this world," Mills said. "This is the kind of program that could have a generational impact and I can't wait to get started."

Parton, on video link to the governor's meeting at Portland's Holiday Inn by the Bay from her home in Tennessee, was effusive about Mills' announcement.

"That's wonderful news and I do love Maine — I have been there many times and I am sure you are a lot cooler than we are right now in Tennessee," the 76-year-old music legend told Mills. "Thank you very much. ... We're just so excited to be putting books in the hands of children around the world and Maine, we're just so happy you're taking this on."

Maine children already benefit from a similar but smaller-scale program called Raising Readers, a Libra Foundation-funded effort started 22 years ago that has given 3 million books to babies and small children, often via their pediatricians' offices. Mills' spokesman Scott Ogden said the Imagination Library program would complement and extend that effort.

"We know the simple act of reading to a child stimulates brain development, reduces stress and anxiety, builds vocabulary, and develops the literacy skills they'll need to succeed in school and beyond," Mills said in a statement shortly after her announcement to the governors.

The NGA meeting, which wrapped up midday Friday, is the first to be held in Maine since 1983. It is occurring at a time of extreme divisiveness between the states, fueled by recent Supreme Court decisions rolling back the rights of women and indigenous tribes, and the ability of states to regulate firearms, and disagreements over the desirability of holding free and fair elections, and holding high officials responsible for their roles in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Unlike the Republican Governors Association and Democratic Governors Association, the NGA doesn't raise and hand out campaign cash. Instead, the Washington-based group provides a trans-partisan forum for governors to collaborate on policy challenges and, when consensus is found, to lobby federal officials to take action, such as last year's successful effort to get full federal reimbursements to the states for pandemic-related mobilizations of their National Guard units.

Governors of both parties emphasized the importance of their ability to collaborate and build relationships across the partisan divide for the good of their constituents and the country.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox — the group's incoming vice chair — shared that he had been watching with amazement the incredibly detailed images of the universe taken by NASA's new space telescope. His conclusion, he said: "We fight about some really stupid (expletive) sometimes."

"Our ability to work together means so much more than most of the stuff we fight about," the Republican told the other governors. "People say the governors are the last adults in the room. When it comes to politics and I think that's true."

"It's very easy to use hate and divisiveness to attract followers but that's not healthy," Cox added to reporters later. "It's not healthy for our republic and I'm worried about our republic."

SEEKING COMMON GROUND

Mills, speaking to reporters after the conference said: "We are friends first and foremost. We know we don't agree on every issue but we know how to find common ground and that is so important and that is what we have done and have continued to do over the past few days."

"If more people could be in these rooms they would be encouraged to see governors working together across the aisle and they would actually have more confidence in our institutions of democracy," said outgoing NGA Chair Asa Hutchinson, Republican governor of Arkansas.

The 19 state and territorial governors who attended the conference avoided taking on divisive issues like the voter suppression efforts within some state legislatures or how to deal with the chasm in differences in abortion policies and their potential impact on the freedom of movement for women. But they found common ground on boosting computer science education programs and discussed school safety and security in a private session Friday morning.

At the last session Friday, Hutchinson passed the gavel to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who will chair the NGA for the next two years. He announced his focus would be on youth mental health, a problem he said wasn't created by the pandemic but has been exacerbated by it.

In addition to the governors already referenced, the Maine meeting was attended by Charlie Baker, R-Massachusetts; Doug Burgum, R-North Dakota; John Carney, D-Delaware; Roy Cooper, D-North Carolina; Doug Ducey, R-Arizona; John Bel Edwards, D-Louisiana; Larry Hogan, R-Maryland; Ned Lamont, D-Connecticut; Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico; JB Pritzker, D-Illinois; Phil Scott, R-Vermont; Chris Sununu, R-New Hampshire; Tim Walz, D-Minnesota; Tom Wolf, D-Pennsylvania; and Glenn Youngkin, R-Virginia.