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Dolly Parton talks about her new children's book — and standing up to bullies

A woman smiles at the camera while holding a small toy guitar while a French Bulldog sits on a chair next to her.
Courtesy of Dolly Parton
Parton's inspiration is a small French bulldog named Billy.

It's really hard to make it in the music business. But if you continue to be yourself, and practice, and find good friends, you'll do it.

That's what a certain dog musician named Billy The Kid would tell you. You can read about his ruff beginnings in the new children's book, Billy The Kid Makes It Big. His story is written by someone who knows a thing or two about sticking to a music career: the one and only Dolly Parton.

The music star and writer talks with NPR's Melissa Block about writing for children, standing up to bullies and why her program to deliver books to children meant so much to her dad.

This has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The text of the new book is by Dolly Parton, with Erica S. Perl, and art by MacKenzie Haley.
/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House
The text of the new book is by Dolly Parton, with Erica S. Perl, and art by MacKenzie Haley.

Interview highlights

On Billy and why he inspired her to write the book:

Billy belongs to my manager, Danny Nozell. And when Danny first brought him to the studio, I just fell in love with him. He's a tiny little thing. And I just claimed him. And I said I have to be his extra mama, or he has to be my goddog.

[The book] is about confidence, about standing up to bullies. So it's really got a lot of meaningful things, I think, for children from 4 to 7. It's a story about him coming to Nashville, trying to make it in the business, and being discouraged by some others and feeling sad. And finally meeting some friends that gave him confidence.

On being bullied as a child:

I have a song and a book called Coat of Many Colors. My mama had made me a little coat out of rags, because she didn't have enough of the same material to make me a coat and it was getting winter time. So, while she made that coat, she told me the story about Joseph in the Bible. And boy, I thought I just really looked like Joseph, and I was so proud of it and wore it to school. And the kids laughed and said it was just rags, and I didn't look like Joseph, and that we were poor and all that. I remember crying so hard. And kids always remember things like that, your first deep hurt.

So that followed me, and years later I didn't really know it was so in there, I wrote a song about it. So since then, I've written lots of songs that I know are things that children deal with, whether it be the bullying, or just being hurt, or having no confidence, and being able to stay strong and believe in who you are.

On staying true to yourself:

I believe that we all should have the chance to be exactly who we are. And I even wrote a song ["Be That"] about how whatever you are, be that. Whatever you do, do that. Anything else is just an act. You can't be something different than you are. And when you try, it's just a fake, and you're never complete as a human being.

On her dad not learning to read or write:

My dad didn't get a chance to read or write. And that bothered him. And that bothered me that it bothered him. So, I got this idea to start the [Imagination Library] program where we give books to children from the time they were born, once a month, till they started school. We were just thinking about our home county, and it grew so fast. And then it went all over Tennessee, and then went into Canada, and now we're all over the world.

My dad took great pride in that. He got to live long enough to see it doing really well. He just told me he was very proud of me and that he felt like I was doing something special. I was proud that he got to be part of something great. And he could feel better about himself.

Parton's Imagination Library has delivered more than 200 million books to children worldwide.
Pool / Getty Images
Getty Images
Parton's Imagination Library has delivered more than 200 million books to children worldwide.

On still writing songs, and where she gets her inspiration:

I'm always drawing things from my childhood. I incorporate a lot of things from my life and even up-to-date things. I've always said my life is in my songs. Even if they're not all true experiences, some of the feelings and some of the lines are always mine.

I can be in the kitchen cooking, and all of a sudden I'll getting an idea for a song. Sometimes I get woke up in the middle of the night, just wake up and think, "Why am I awake?" And I think, "Well, I guess because I need to say something." So, I get up, and I'll go find a pen and some paper. I usually try to keep a notepad by my bed, because I often dream about singing songs. I've written with my lipstick and eyebrow pencil a lot!

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Melissa Block
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Gus Contreras