The student-mentor relationship between illustrator Endrené Shepherd and author Yasmin John-Thorpe started over 25 years ago with a Christmas card.
John-Thorpe originally met Shepherd when she was working for victims assistance in Penticton and put out a call to young artists in Penticton to make Christmas cards for a fundraiser she was working on.
“Endrené’s Christmas card blew us away,” said John-Thorpe.
John-Thorpe still remembers the card well all these years later. She described it as having a “perfect” Ogopogo with a Santa hat, and on the inside a greeting that said “serpent’s greetings from the Okanagan.”
Shepherd still remembers the contest as well, one that led to friendship and a working partnership that spans decades.
“I was pretty excited to be chosen as part of the team and my card was the most popular from the group,” Shepherd said.
Years later, John-Thorpe and her husband were funding Shepherd, a teenager at this point, who was creating, printing and selling her own Ogopogo greeting cards.
“This was the first foray of us working together,” John-Thorpe said.
Now, the pair have released the second in a series of five children’s books that revolve around the animals who make their home in the Sonoran Desert.
“We just stayed in touch over the years. I’m 35 now so thats a long time to be working together,” Shepherd laughed.
John-Thorpe spends her winters with her husband in Arizona, and was looking to get involve in the Tucson Festival of Books which gets over 130,000 visitors over the two-day festival held at the University of Arizona.
She wanted to localize the story and explore the ecosystem around her. The first book in the series, A New Home for the Q’s, follows a covey of quails while the latest entry in the series, Cruz Coyote and Rory Roadrunner, revolves around a coyote who has been following the quails of the first book.
“The Sonora Desert is a really dangerous place, there’s lots of predators, lots of friends,” John-Thorpe said.
All of the books in the series will intertwine characters all drawn from the real-world inhabitants of the Sonoroan Desert including a javalenia (a type of wild boar), bobcats, rattlesnakes, hummingbirds and roadrunners.
Shepherd has never been to Arizona, so the project required some research.
“I learned a lot about the different plants and animals in the Sonora Desert. I had to get them right because Yasmin does make mention of different plants so I had to figure out what a barrel cactus looks like,” Shepherd said.
John-Thorpe would take photos and buy postcards in Arizona, sending them to Shepherd back in Penticton to show her the different flora and fauna she would eventually illustrate.
Originally from the Caribbean island of Trinidad, Penticton reminds John-Thorpe of home with the lush greenery, mountains and blue water. However, Arizona was initially a stark contrast to anything she was used to.
“I get to the desert and everything is dead and brown,” John-Thorpe laughed.
She runs many literacy programs in Penticton, including Raise-a-Reader and youth writing camps, so the student-teacher relationship is an important one for Yasmin-Thorpe. But a mentorship spanning decades is a rarity.
“It’s like teacher and student, right? I’ve known Endrené for so long and I’ve always been interested in what she’s doing,” John-Thorpe said.
She even pushed Sheppard to write a book chronicaling her adventures during a trip abroad in 2010 titled I’m Big in Japan.
“It’s been really special for me to have somebody so interested in my career and my development as an artist, and to have a real mentor, it’s really special,” Shepherd said.
“Actually, I have a whip,” John-Thorpe joked.
With three more books to illustrate, the mutually beneficial relationship shows no signs of slowing down.
“Isn’t that what we all need, is somebody who wants to give us a good whipping and push us?” Shepherd laughed.