Dear Mom Love Johnny: A Family History in Letters

Kathleen Monahan had long envisioned creating a personal keepsake featuring a series of handwritten letters from her late father. The hardcover photo book she created, Dear Mom Love Johnny, preserves a unique record of family history that she can proudly display, share with loved ones, and treasure for years to come. We checked in with Kathleen to learn how this special family photo book came together. 

How did working on such a personal project compare to your professional work? Any challenges or surprises?

This is an interesting question to answer because my “professional work” has been in law enforcement. I have been a police officer since 2007 but recently completed a bachelor’s degree in digital media and photography. Without going back to school, this book would never have been created. I have wanted to put it together for almost a decade.

My father passed away in the summer of 2011. My brothers and I received these letters from a family member shortly after he passed. I put each letter in a protective sleeve in a binder which I go to a few times a year to re-read. But I always felt guilty that I was the only one with full access to the letters. It wasn’t until this past summer, after completing my new degree, that I finally had the time and the skills to archive the letters and create this book the way I felt it deserved to be displayed. 

The majority of the creative work that I’ve completed has been photography based, archiving and restoring images. This was the first time I used that background for documents. I found it to be similar to archiving photographs with less restorative work that needed to be completed, but certainly more enjoyable because I was re-reading the letters again as I worked on them. 

What inspired you to create a printed book rather than (or as well as) having a digital archive of your father’s letters?  

I wanted my brothers, their children, and my father’s siblings to have access to the letters. I did create a digital archive of the letters but having a high-quality copy of the letters in your hands to read was more important to be able to give them than sending everyone a digital copy. After putting the letters in chronological order and seeing how they flowed together, I knew it was always going to be a physical book.  

“This is my proudest creation. An archived collection of my father’s letters to his mother during his time in the Marines. Over 100 pages of his words and his handwriting and I could not love it more.” 


How did you decide on the format for your book? What were you considering as you chose the size, paper type, and layout? 

I wanted to get the layout and paper size as close to the original letter size as I could without a lot of extra white space around them to really put all the focus on the letters. The matte finish made for easier reading, without the shine of a glossy finish. I also wanted the pages to look as realistic to the original letters as possible.

What tips would you give someone working on a family project like this? 

I would say to really just take your time with it and really enjoy the process. I typically tend to work as fast as I can on projects, due to the limited time I usually have to spend working on them. But with this, I did not give myself a timeline or a deadline.  

Are personal memories, stories, and moments an important source of creative inspiration for you? Where else do you look for ideas?

I love being able to tell a story through photographs. It’s great taking the photographs themselves, but I also love looking back at family photos and being able to archive them or bring them back to life with restoration. I think surrounding myself with these very personal images is a huge source of inspiration in the work that I complete. I spend a lot of my time looking at old photographs or taking my own. Whether that is on my personal time or at work as our department’s crime scene photographer. I think all of those images have a way of coming through in my photographs and other digital artwork.  

Thinking about creating a photo book or keepsake of your own? Find the cover style and paper type to fit your project. 


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