[Note: This review may not be published elsewhere without written permission from its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2008 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.]
Olsen, Sylvia, Yetsa’s Sweater, illustrated by Joan Larson. Sono Nis Press, 2006, color, preschool-up; Coast Salish
Yetsa’s sweater has become too small for her, but she doesn’t care. It still keeps her warm, and the patterns that her Grandma knitted into it—flowers because her mom loves gardening, salmon because her dad loves fishing, and waves because Yetsa loves the beach—warm her heart. But soon Yetsa is going to have a new sweater, and now she’s helping Grandma prepare the wool.
Traditionally, Indian children learn experientially, most often from a grandparent or auntie or uncle, usually a little at a time. They’re asked to help, task by task, until they know something well enough to do it independently. Sometimes grandparents look away while children attempt things beyond their skill levels so they can find out that they’re not ready. This is learning, too.
Between the many piles of “raw” wool and the finished sweater, there is lots of hard work—hand cleaning, washing, wringing, drying, teasing, carding, spinning, and knitting—and there’s lots of kidding around and good-natured teasing between Grandma and Mom and Yetsa. One incident in particular is guaranteed to have young readers howling. As Yetsa learns, a wealth of cultural information is shared with readers, too. But there’s no internal conflict about “walking in two worlds” and none of the self-conscious ethnographic expositions common in picture books written by outsiders. Just a happy little girl, secure in the love of her family, growing into the capable, confidant woman she will be. Growing into her new sweater, with “flowers, whales and waves, woolly clouds and blackberries.”
Larson’s pastel artwork, on a palette of rich blues and greens, complement the blacks, browns, whites and grays that constitute the beautiful Cowichan sweaters. You can taste the thick, delicious blackberry jam. You can feel the oily lanolin in the wool. And you can smell the—well, what Yetsa pulls out of a pile of wool. In the story, Yetsa is a very real little girl—and in fact, she’s the author’s granddaughter, in the sixth generation of a family of Coast Salish knitters. Yetsa’s Sweater is a quiet story, full of love and joy, a treasure to read to youngsters, over and over.—Beverly Slapin
Note from Debbie: Yetsa's Sweater is available from Oyate. If you can, purchase the book from Oyate. It may be cheaper from Amazon, but the work Oyate does for Native and non-Native children is work that helps society be a more just and caring world for everyone.