Born and raised in Victoria, Sylvia Olsen returned to school at age 35 and gained a Master's degree in history, specializing in Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations. She has worked as a community development consultant with Saanich teenagers and as a community manager with a focus on Reserve housing. Three of her children are part Coast Salish; a fourth, a late addition, is a black Portuguese Brazilian who joined the family at age thirteen. Her first book was a teen novel about five children at the Kuper residential school, No Time to Say Goodbye, followed by another teen novel, The Girl with a Baby, about a strong and promising 14-year-old who makes the best of her pregnancy and motherhood. Olsen's follow-up novel White Girl concerns another 14-year-old girl, Josie, whose light skin and good grades are assets until her mother meets 'a real ponytail Indian' named Martin and they move onto the Reserve. Josie must learn to adjust to her new life with a new stepfather, a new stepbrother, and a new nickname: Blondie.

According to Olsen, who married into the Tsartlip First Nation at age 17 and subsequently lived on the Tsartlip reserve lands, raising her four children there, Aboriginals are four-and-a-half times more likely to become teenage mothers than girls from the general population, and more than half of all First Nations families are now started by teen parents. In March of 1997 her own fourteen-year-old daughter, Heather, tearfully announced she was pregnant, subsequently giving birth to Olsen's granddaughter. At the time, Olsen was head of the family because her Coast Salish husband had left a few years earlier. Based largely on interviews with 13 Tsartlip women who became teenage mothers like herself, Olsen's non-fiction study Just Ask Us: A Conversation with First Nations Teenage Moms (Sono Nis, 2005) examines teenage sexuality, birth control, abortion, violence, cultural attitudes and efforts to stem a seemingly intractable cycle of poverty that arises with teenage motherhood. "The dreary truth for most of the young women was that, in spite of their freedom to experience sexual satisfaction, it seemed to have eluded them," she writes. "Sexual liberty did not mean they had control over their bodies, or control over the kind of sex they engaged in. The act of sexual intercourse seemed far more like a risky habit or mating ritual gone wrong than an expression of love or experience of pleasure. It appeared overall to be neither safe, meaningful, nor satisfying."

Written for younger readers, Catching Spring describes a boy named Bobby who lives on the Tsartlip First Nation in 1957. He has a weekend job at the nearby marina, gives half his earnings to his mother and yearns to enter an upcoming fishing derby--but he doesn't have a boat. The story was inspired by Olsen's husband who had a similar experience when he was growing up. Which Way Should I Go (Sono Nis 2007) is about a Nuu-chah-nulth boy named Joey who overcomes the loss of his beloved grandmother by learning to cherish the song and the dance that she left to him.

Yellow Line concerns racial prejudice among teenagers in a smalltown literally divided into two camps. A white boy named Vince is angry when his friend Sherry becomes romantically involved with an Aboriginal boy, but Vince must re-examine his own prejudices when he becomes infatuated with Raedawn, a girl from the reserve. After they have become a couple, the characters of Raedawn and Vince reappear in Olsen's Middle Row, another teen novel concerned with racism.

In the Orca Young Readers Series, Sylvia Olsen's Murphy and the Mousetrap is followed by A Different Game, about the evolving friendships of players on the Long Inlet Tribal School soccer teams.

When she wasn't busy successfully challenging the Hudson Bay Company's ripoff of Cowichan Indian sweater designs leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, Sylvia Olsen was promoting her historical novel for teens, Counting on Hope (Sono Nis $14.95), about a pre-colonial friendship between young people of different racial origins on the B.C. coast. "I knew as soon as I read historical records of the confrontation between the British navy and the Lamalcha on Kuper Island in 1863,"; Olsen says, "that it was the perfect setting for just such a story."; In 2008, the Victoria Book Prize Society partnered with Bolen Books to establish the Bolen Books Children's Book Prize to recognize children's and youth literary works. In October of 2010, Samantha Holmes co-owner and general manager of Bolen Books, presented Sylvia Olsen with a $5,000 cheque for Counting on Hope, the third book to receive the prize.

"Stitches are my second language."; In KNITTING STORIES: Personal Essays and Nine Coast Salish-inspired Knitting Patterns (Sono Nis $22.95) Olsen contemplates the language of knitting and ways it reflects on family and community, while creating narratives through the mediums of wool and word. The handcrafted designs of yarn and needle are as varied as the stories that we tell. To Olsen each expresses who we are, and what it means to be human.

[Sylvia Olsen's blog can be found at Salishfusion.ca]

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater

BOOKS:

No Time to Say Goodbye: Children's Stories of Kuper Island Residential School (Sono Nis, 2002).
The Girl with a Baby (Sono Nis, 2003). 1550391429
Catching Spring (Orca, 2004)
White Girl (Sono Nis, 2004) 1-55039-147-X
Just Ask Us: A Conversation with First Nations Teenage Moms (Sono Nis, 2005, $22.95). 1-55039-152-6
Murphy and the Mouse Trap (Orca, 2005).
Yellow Line (Orca, 2005 $9.95). 1-55143-462-8
Just Ask Us: A Conversation with First Nations Teenage Moms (Sono Nis, 2006)
Yetsa's Sweater (Sono Nis, 2006; 2014). Illustrated by Joan Larson.
Which Way Should I Go (Sono Nis, 2007; 2014). Co-authored with Ron Martin. Illustrated by Kasia Charko.
Middle Row (Orca, 2008).
Counting on Hope (Sono Nis, 2009).
A Different Game (Orca, 2010).
Working with Wool (Sono Nis, 2010; 2014). $38.95 1-55039-177-1
Molly's Promise (Orca 2013). $7.95 9781459802773
KNITTING STORIES: Personal Essays and Nine Coast Salish-inspired Knitting Patterns (Sono Nis 2014) $22.95 978-1-55039-232-6
Life Cycle of a Lie (Sono Nis 2014) $10.95 978-1-55039-233-3

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2014] "Kidlit" "First Nations" "Indianology"