TAMPA — Claire Barrow is only 2 years old, but when a book wrapped in plastic arrives in the mail, she knows it's probably for her.
Almost since birth, she has received one book a month from the Imagination Library, a national program started by Dolly Parton's Dollywood Foundation. Her mother Heather estimates the tyke has received more than 30 books so far.
"It is just crazy. She is into dressing up like princesses," Barrow said. "She got this princess book in the mail, and she about lost it."
Her 3-month-old brother, Hill, however, will have to wait for his books.
The Imagination Library in Hillsborough County is one of the most popular in the nation, and local organizers no longer have the resources to take on new participants.
Children already in the program will continue receiving their books. But organizers stopped promoting the free program in May. On Monday, the waiting list to sign up was 557 names long.
The cost of free books is more than $330,000 a year for the more than 11,000 children already enrolled. Private donations are accepted through the library Web site hcplc.org. Other help for the program comes from sponsors that include the Hillsborough County public schools, the Children's Board, Head Start, United Way of Tampa Bay and the Postal Service.
It will take $83,550 to pay for books for the 557 children on the waiting list.
The program, headquartered in Tennessee, sends out one book a month to more than 550,000 children in 45 states, Canada and the United Kingdom.
David Dotson is the president of the Dollywood Foundation, the group that runs the Imagination Library. He said the popularity of Hillsborough's program is not surprising and that setting up a waiting list was a responsible response given the program's economic situation.
"I know that their objective is to secure more funding and bring more children into the program. … It is better to manage the program correctly," Dotson said.
The Imagination Library started in Hillsborough in September 2006. Only children living within six select ZIP codes received books. A year later it expanded to the entire county.
The program is open to children born on or after Sept. 1, 2006, regardless of family income.
"At that time we thought we had enough financial backing or else we would not have been stepping off on a limb to (open the program countywide)," said Cathy Pierce, early literacy coordinator for the Hillsborough County Library Cooperative. "We have really outgrown our program."
Heather Barrow, of south Tampa, thinks Claire was one of the first kids enrolled. Barrow found out about the program at the hospital around the time Claire was born.
Barrow tried to enroll her son shortly after he was born in April, but he was put on the waiting list.
Barrow reads about 10 books a day to her daughter, who has the makings of her own library.
"I would be really sad if the program goes away, and I am sure my daughter will be, too," Barrow said.
Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 269-5314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.