Author Profile: Sylvia Olsen by Katherine Gilks (for LIS 9364 – Young Adult Materials)
Biography and Writing:
Sylvia Olsen (born in 1955) is from Victoria, British Columbia, and has lived the majority of her life so far just north of that city on the Tsartlip First Nation on the Saanich Peninsula (located on Vancouver Island). She has four adult children and several grandchildren. Having grown up as a non-native in a middle-class family in Victoria, she moved to the Tsartlip First Nation to get married at age seventeen. Her children are of mixed ancestry, and much of what she writes addresses themes of cultural clash, First Nations culture, ancestral heritage, and identity. Her experiences, and the experiences of her children, form the basis for several of her works. Educated in history, she began writing while in her thirties and had her first book published when she was 44. Her primary career is in housing, community outreach, and addressing homelessness. In her remaining spare time, she also is fascinated by drawing, sewing, knitting, and clothing design.
Despite some stereotypes about being a writer of books for young people, Sylvia Olsen prefers to write for younger audiences and insists that she will continue to write for them. The themes that she particularly addresses in her works for young adults are racism, teenage pregnancy (and subsequent teenage motherhood), First Nations versus non-native identity, and gang violence. Her most recent novel, Counting on Hope, is about first contact between First Nations inhabitants and English settlers on Vancouver Island, and is a departure from her previous works in that it is historical fiction, but it continues to explore the themes of identity, bigotry, adolescence, and cultural dissonance. Her books are often about exploring and breaking stereotypes and many of the issues that she addresses are ones that her audience may be uncomfortable with, but she does so in manners that are somewhat unexpected within young adult literature. For example, her first novel for young adults, The Girl with a Baby, is about a teenage mother and it is notable in that the main character has her baby in the first chapter and the rest of the story is about her finding her identity afterwards. Rather than focusing on ‘teenage pregnancy,’ this book focuses on ‘teenage motherhood.’ Olsen followed up that novel with a non-fiction book on the same subject, again with the same focus. While she writes about First Nations teenage mothers in particular, some of the issues that her non-fiction book raises can apply to teenage mothers in general as well. Another of her books, White Girl, addresses racism between First Nations and non-native teens from the perspective of a non-native girl being transplanted to a reserve. This is an unusual perspective for Canadian young adult literature. Much of Olsen’s works are an exploration in the perspectives of First Nations and non-native cultures and how they intersect. Her motivations for writing are to continue exploring these themes and encouraging their discussion among young people. Some of her novels are also related to her work in community activism.
Her website is http://sylviaolsen.ca.
Among Sylvia Olsen’s works are picture books, chapter books for young readers, and young adult novels of various reading levels. She primarily writes fiction, but has written some non-fictional works as well. Some of her books are fictional stories based on non-fictional content, such as stories about the experience of her neighbours in residential schools, accounts of teenage mothers, and knitting Coast Salish sweaters. Her two books for the Orca Soundings series, Yellow Line and Middle Row, are highly popular with teenage readers.
Bibliography in Chronological Order : (items in bold are Young Adult)
No Time to Say Good-bye: Children’s Stories of Kuper Island Residential School (written with Rita Morris and Ann Sam). Victoria, BC : Sono Nis Press, 2001.
The Girl with a Baby. Winlaw. BC : Sono Nis Press, 2003.
– a fourteen-year-old mother finding her identity within her family and at her high school
Catching Spring. Orca Book Publishers, 2004.
White Girl. Winlaw, BC : Sono Nis Press, 2004.
– a teenage girl moves to a First Nations reserve when her mother remarries
Murphy and Mousetrap. Orca Book Publishers, 2005.
Just Ask Us: A Conversation with First Nations Teenage Moms. Winlaw, BC : Sono Nis Press
– non-fiction work about teenage mothers and their experiences (primarily in their own words)
Yellow Line. Orca Book Publishers, 2005.
– Orca Soundings novel about two teenagers who fall in love in a racially-divided town
Yetsa’s Sweater. Illustrated by Joan Larson. Winlaw, BC : Sono Nis Press, 2006.
Middle Row. Orca Book Publishers, 2008.
– Orca Soundings novel; sequel to Yellow Line
A Different Game. Orca Book Publishers, 2010.
Counting on Hope. Winlaw, BC : Sono Nis Press, 2010.
– historical fiction set in 1860s; chronicles the experiences of an English girl and a First Nations girl
Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater. Winlaw, BC : Sono Nis Press, 2010.
Critical Reception & Awards:
Sylvia Olsen’s works have been nominated for several awards (including multiple nominations for British Columbia’s Stellar Book Award) and she most recently won the City of Victoria Bolen Books Children’s Book Prize in October 2010 for her young adult historical fiction book Counting on Hope. Her most recently-published early-reader novel, A Different Game, was a nominee for the 2011 Silver Birch Express Award. One of her earlier books, The Girl with a Baby, was a nominee for Saskatchewan’s Silver Birch Award. Her books are usually met with positive reviews.
Two of her books, The Girl with a Baby and Just Ask Us: A Conversation with First Nations Teenage Moms, are especially favourably reviewed and are often acclaimed as groundbreaking works of fiction and of non-fiction respectively. Unlike many books that discuss or address the issue of teenage pregnancy, Olsen’s books focus primarily on teenage motherhood. Reviewers of Just Ask Us especially praised that Olsen focused on several interconnected issues relating to teen moms and that she relied heavily on first-hand experiences from teenage mothers themselves. For example, Christina Minaki, of Canadian Children’s Book News, says that “Just Ask Us tells the raw truth resulting from Olsen’s no-holds-barred discussions with teenage mothers. They talked about everything candidly — from the First Nations belief and value system to education, self-image, sex and relationships, birth control, abortion, stereotypes, success, failures, poverty, survival, expectations, accountability, fears, freedom, sacrifice, racism, societal misunderstandings, hopes, needs, disappointments, dreams, decisions…” (2006). In fact, what passes for negative criticism of Olsen’s work often has a laudatory element to it. Hazel Rochman, reviewing for the American Library Association, says of The Girl with a Baby: “[this book] goes far beyond the old-fashioned “problem novel.” [The protagonist] Jane’s home, on and off reservation, is drawn without romanticism, and from the painful birth scene in the opening chapter, Jane’s first-person narrative never denies how hard it is, and how thrilling.” (2004). Overall, Sylvia Olsen’s books are treated overwhelmingly favourably by the Canadian young adult literature scene.
London Public Library. (2011). Library online catalogue. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2011, from <http:/www.londonpubliclibrary.ca>.
Minaki, Christine. (2006). “Review of Just Ask Us: A Conversation with First Nations Teenage Moms, by Sylvia Olsen.” Canadian Children’s Book News, Spring 2006 (Vol. 29, No. 2). Retrieved Feb. 6, 2011, from Children’s Literature Reviews <http://clcd.odyssi.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca:2048/cgi-bin/member/search/f?>./temp/~tlP4Yi:1>.
Olsen, Sylvia. (2011). Sylviaolsen.ca. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2011, from <http://sylviaolsen.ca/>.
Orca Book Publishers. (2011). Sylvia Olsen. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2011, from <http://www.orcabook.com/contributorinfo.cfm?ContribID=110>.
Rochman, Hazel. (2004). “Review of The Girl with a Baby, by Sylvia Olsen.” American Library Association, March 2004. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2011, from <http://www.bhcg.ca/images/promoGirl.pdf>.
Stellar Award.ca. (2007). Sylvia Olsen Interviews. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2011, from <http://www.stellaraward.ca/interview.php?id=12>.
 Information for bibliography compiled from the author’s website, the London Public Library online catalogue, and Orca Book Publishers website.