“That’s the best bedtime of the month, the day they get their Imagination Library book.”

Jessica Johnson clearly remembers the comment.

It’s from a parent whose child was enrolled in the Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program.

The program distributes age-appropriate books to kids from birth to age 5 to promote literacy, and it will distribute its 1 millionth book this month.

Johnson is the marketing and communications manager for United Way of Central Minnesota, which has made Imagination Library one of its best-known programs. The local program — the 13th-largest in the world — is in its 10th year.

Dolly Parton even recorded a congratulatory message to participants, organizers and donors.

On Thursday, organizers traveled to St. Joseph to celebrate the milestone, following a book from post office to a waiting family.

St. Joseph Postmaster Tony Terwey is also the father of four kids, ages 3 through 8, who participated in the program.

He said the program is important because it fosters a love of reading and stories in kids, something he witnessed firsthand.

“It’s fun to see the excitement,” he said about kids receiving their packages.

Terwey estimates the St. Joseph post office sees close to 200 book packages a month.

“It’s far more reaching than someone just making a donation to the United Way,” he said. “It makes a greater impact than is known.”

The program is free for any child and doesn’t have any income requirements. Each child can be signed up individually.

If enrolled at birth, a child will get 60 books by the time they enter kindergarten — from “The Little Engine That Could” to “Look Out Kindergarten Here I Come.”

“If we can get kids inspired to read, and they learn to love to read, they’re better off in school, better prepared for kindergarten,” Johnson said. United Way hopes that sets up kids to be successful later in life.

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 The books arrive in the mail, addressed to the child, something that gives the child pride of ownership.

And the books have reading tips for parents, which encourage literacy, comprehension and creativity.

Imagination Library selects the books, which can sometimes get a family outside its comfort zone. A child might receive a book the family wouldn’t have bought for the child and ends up loving it.

Follow Stephanie Dickrell on Twitter @SctimesSteph, call her at 255-8749 or read more stories at www.sctimes.com/sdickrell.

By the numbers …

Since the program began in February 2005, more than 28,000 local children have received free books. That’s equal to the populations of Sartell and Sauk Rapids combined.

United Way of Central Minnesota is the 13th largest of 1,400Imagination Library affiliates across the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Australia.

The program currently costs our local United Way more than $200,000 per year, or about $30 per child enrolled. It’s funded by individual donations, grants, foundations, corporate sponsorships and special event fundraising.

A recent study from local Imagination Library parents said 94 percent of parents noted their children asked to be read to more because of the program.

83 percent of local Imagination Library parents agreed they read more to their children because of the program.

66 percent of age-eligible children are enrolled in the program locally.

The total number of children enrolled in 2014 was 10,475, or enough for 140 full-size school buses.

85 percent of brain development happens before age 3.

If enrolled at birth, a child receives 60 free books.

At 1 million, the program has mailed more books than the Great River Regional Library’s 32 locations have in circulation.

Source: United Way of Central Minnesota.

To sign up

To register your child with the Imagination Library, visit https://usa.imaginationlibrary.com/register_my_child.php.

Related stories

Read more about United Way of Central Minnesota’s other projects, including reducing poverty.

United Way has its spring celebration.

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