Loyal Heights resident Jo Simonian and her mother, Cecelia, look at original pages of her recently published book, "Each Tiny Tooth." Simonian said working on the book gave her "something to create with my hands while being present for my mom."
A labor of love, an homage to mom
Ballard woman writes and illustrates children’s book
By Karen Rathe
The Tooth Fairy sports flower-petal wings. She flits through the night sky, alights on a French-knot cherry tree and whizzes over a wishing well. She glides across a glimmering turquoise pool studded with tiny beads – all in her quest to find the right locale for her ivory load.
This particular tooth fairy, in fact, was lovingly created in a series of hand-stitched fabric panels by Jo Simonian, who lives in Loyal Heights. Earlier this year they were photographed and published in a hardcover book for children, entitled “Each Tiny Tooth.” Every scene in the 28-page volume contains a brief descriptive rhyme.
A book launch party is planned for Thursday, June 28, at 7 p.m. at Secret Garden Books.
How this book came to fruition is an interesting story. Simonian’s recent handcraft experience, she said, was limited to “knitting long square scarves.” As a child back in the ‘60s, however, she and her siblings would gather rocks, shells, driftwood and seaweed pods from the beach at Kalaloch, where her family summered each year while her father worked as a park naturalist. Her mother would set up the kitchen table so they could make collages, rock creatures and seaweed people.
Simonian said she forgot about how satisfying creative handiwork could be until around five years ago, when her young neighbor, Elizabeth, invited her over to do a craft project. “For Christmas, she had received a copy of ‘Felt Wee Folk, Enchanting Projects’ by Salley Mavor,” she said. Mavor calls her craft “fabric relief collage” and it involves felt, beads, buttons, found objects and embroidery. “Her work is exquisite and I was immediately drawn to it,” Simonian said.
Around the same time Simonian began caring for her mother, Cecelia, who has dementia. She and her brother and sister, who live in nearby states, devised a plan in which they would rotate care, with their mother living with Jo and her family for three-month stints.
The timing was good; Simonian’s sons were off in college and she had left a longtime job as a tour guide with Seattle Underground. She stocked up on colorful fabrics and lace, shiny embroidery thread and odd and sundry treasures and started playing around.
“I found the time passed so sweetly when I had something to create with my hands while being present for my mom,” she said.
“The rhythm and repetition of the stitches makes it very relaxing. Also, if something does not look right, it’s so easy to take it out and start over. ... It’s the perfect medium for me,” she added.
Christy MacDonald, owner of the Secret Garden, said she has known Simonian since she first opened her store on 15th Avenue Northwest. “Jo used to bring her boys in when they were little,” she said. “Now she brings her mother in.”
Simonian said she got the idea for “Each Tiny Tooth” from her sister, an elementary-school librarian, because “she says her kids always want to tell her about their loose or missing teeth -- it is a big topic of conversation.”
Mary Ann Soule, a life and career coach who lives in North Beach, purchased a copy of “Each Tiny Tooth” recently. “My niece just lost a tooth, and there are more on the way out,” she said. “She’ll just love it.”
Soule, who has been in the same Ballard-based book group as Simonian for many years, said, “I’ve been watching her make these beautiful felt pages over the years, and it’s so cool to see them copied and printed. She’s an artist.”
Like many writers and artists, Simonian found the road to publication difficult. She finally chose to self-publish. “I found this amazing web site (http://www.selfpublishing.com/) that answered almost every question I had,” she said. “It made me realize I could do almost everything myself (obtain a Library of Congress number, ISBN, bar code, etc.). They offered many services, but I just needed printing.” She recommends this company, noting that while it took some time to put all the pieces together, “you maintain a little more control.”
When they’re not relaxing at home, Simonian and her mother often take to the sidewalk and frequent a number of Ballard-area businesses. In the beginning her mother used a walker; these days, Simonian pushes her in a wheelchair.
Jess Fisher, retail manager for Larsen’s Bakery, said Simonian is “wonderful, one of my very favorite people who come here.” She noted that her mother “likes to nibble on chocolate thumbprint cookies” as she watches children come and go in the bakery.
Jeannie Liu, owner of Miro Tea, said Simonian and her mother “began coming to our shop several years ago when Cecelia was still quite aware and alert. I am so grateful I met her back then because I got to witness the true spirit within her. …
“Cecelia was always full of jokes, compliments, and asked sweetly of those around her for a smile if she happened to catch too serious of an expression on their faces -- which we granted immediately of course!” Liu said.
“And Jo has become such an inspiration for us all, as we've witnessed her unwavering devotion and care that she's shown her mother. … She embodies the same exuberant yet sweet spirit of her mother,” Liu said.
Their relationship reflects “what is truly meaningful in life,” Liu added.
“Each Tiny Tooth,” by Jo Simonian; self-published via RJ Communications; $16.99; available at Secret Garden Books and starting in July, Clover on Ballard Avenue.
Karen Rathe teaches journalism with the University of Washington Department of Communication.