Picture Book Review: Coat of Many Colors by Dolly Parton, Illustrated by Brooke Boynton Hughes

Among my earliest memories of school is rolling out of the bed from the warmth of my quilt to the crisp, cold air of the Appalachian winter morning.  My mother had in her mind the notion that being a good mother meant cooking a full breakfast for us before we caught the bus to school.  My brother and I would have preferred a bowl of Fruity Pebbles.  Getting dressed was a chore.  We might not have had much money, but our clothes were clean and in good order.  I could not have cared less whether my clothes matched as long as they were comfortable.  My mother, however, intervened with a heavy hand to make sure that no one thought her a bad mother for sending ragamuffins to school. In all that morning hubbub, the single commonality at each sunrise was the radio tuned in to WTQR, the Foothill’s most prominent and popular country music radio station.  Our morning routine pressed on with the cadences of George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers, and Willie Nelson.  My favorite then was Dolly Parton.

Unlike my parents as I grew older I never considered myself a country music fan.  But a few artists spoke to my heart because their stories felt so similar to my own.  Dolly Parton was one of the artists.  Much of her work is autobiographical in nature or, at least, reflects the culture of the people of rural Appalachia.  No other regional group of Americans has been more misunderstood and misrepresented as stereotypes than the folks who call the rolling hills and hollers of Appalachia home.  Dolly’s music gave the world a window into our way of life.

Coat of Many Colors is based the song by the same name which Dolly wrote and recorded in 1971.  The song has earned extensive cultural significance over the years.  An earlier picture book based on the song was published in 1996.  In 2012 the song was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry for its cultural and historical significance. Most recently the song served as the title of the 2015 biopic made-for-television movie Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors on NBC.

If you are looking for a biographical picture book of Dolly Parton, this book probably isn’t for you.  If you are looking for a beautiful, realistic picture book with a touching story that reinforces positive character traits, you’ve found a winner.

The lyrics of the song are the text, so young readers may not be aware that Dolly’s story is based on fact.  We see a woman’s hands (we assume Dolly’s) looking through an old photo album.  She then tells us how her mother took a box of rags that someone had given her and made Dolly a new coat.  When Dolly wears the coat to school her classmates make fun of her because a coat of patches meant that the family couldn’t afford a proper coat from the store.  In that moment Dolly feels the shame of poverty but only for a fleeting moment.  She understands the greater lesson:  Her mother made that coat out of love for her daughter.  From that moment on Dolly knows the worth of her life is not measured in coins but in the depth and breadth of love she has from her family.

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The illustrations are beautifully rendered ink and water color paintings.  The images are clean and clear with a few culturally correct details such as the tin roof of Dolly’s childhood home, wick and oil lamps on the walls, and the one room school house with a single iron bell that announced the beginning of class. Aesthetically, the paintings are gorgeous and support the stanzas of the song perfectly.

I do, however, take a few exceptions.  Dolly’s classmates are culturally diverse.  The actual events of the story would have taken place in the early 1950s.  Segregation was the law of the land in Tennessee, so this interpretation is idealized.  IMG_0083.JPG

Also, while I do not dispute the beauty of the panels, there remains a lack of realism.  Every scene is so clean and shiny.  Appalachia then as well as today has a rustic, grimy quality that is missing from the illustrations.

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Dolly gives the reader a letter at the end in which she talks about the effect her classmates’ bullying had on her.  Her goal with this book is to teach children  they can find the inner strength to be themselves and overcome the obstacles others can put before them.  At the end Dolly provides a link to her song “Making Fun Ain’t Funny.”  The song is free for all who purchased the book.

If you are a Dolly Parton fan, you will enjoy Dolly’s story and the pro-family  message of its lyrics.  The book is a great option for teaching kids about not only the effects of bullying but also the inner strength one must find to dismiss the doubts of others.  As a biography of Dolly Parton or as a representation of Appalachian culture, another title may be more appropriate.  Nonetheless, the themes and positive message of Dolly’s classic song will resonate with kids who at times feel different.  Recommended as a read-aboud for ages 4-8.

Teacher Resources

Lexile:  690
Accelerated Reader:  RL 2.9, 0.5 points
Reading Counts: RL 2.5, 1.0 points

A basic biography of Dolly Parton can be found here.  For a more kid-friendly biography of Dolly, consider Who is Dolly Parton? by True Kelley.  Dolly’s story is told in a short chapter book format with black and white illustrations dispersed throughout the text.  The series of books is commercially popular and is appropriate for ages 8-12.

The National Association of Educators has extensive anti-bullying online resources here.

Quilting is culturally significant in the Appalachian region, although quilting as an activity is not unique to the region.  The Utah Education  Network has an excellent resource to help students understand the purpose of quilting and its cultural significance in America.

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