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Little Willow

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Readergirlz Roundtable: Impulse by Ellen Hopkins

The readergirlz divas were so pleased Ellen Hopkins could join us in honor of Operation Teen Book Drop 2009, and in the month of April, National Poetry Month! The verse novel Impulse is a weighty, heart-wrenching read. Join us as we chat about this raw work and our take-aways. 

Lorie Ann Grover:  What were your take-away impressions of Impulse?

Little Willow: Immediately after finishing it: Oh, Conner. Oh.
Dia Calhoun: My immediate impression was that I had found an immensely truthful story.

Shelf Elf:
It made me think about how sheltered I was as a teen. Sure there were kids in my high school who had issues and struggled, but nothing like the characters in this book, to my knowledge. I also wondered what it might have been like for Ellen to take herself inside the heads of 3 such troubled people. That had to have been an intense writing experience.
Lorie Ann: I was exhausted basically. I encountered so many images, subjects, and ideas I've never been fully exposed to before. An entirely new world opened before me, and my sympathies were raised.

Melissa Walker: My mom worked in a state school for troubled kids while I was in high school. She was their biology teacher, and they lived there, healed there. I thought about her a lot while I was reading, and wondered how she kept her heart safe from the heartbreaking stories of her students.

Lorie Ann: Which character would you like to befriend most? I suppose I'd like to know Tony most of all. He's so resilient, caring, and maintains a joy of life.
Shelf Elf: I'm with you, Lorie Ann. I think Tony would be a remarkable friend. He's good at reading people, and at inviting them to recognize their strengths. He's a real listener and a survivor, someone who is pretty wise.

Little Willow: I would probably joke around with Tony and try to coax Vanessa out of her shell.

Holly Cupala: I really loved Tony, though I found myself wanting to get to know some of the other peripheral characters, particularly the other patients. What brought them there? Many were unsympathetic, but I wanted to know what had shaped them that way, as we were able to see with Conner, Vanessa, and Tony. They were all so vivid.

Melissa: I choose Tony, too. He had so much love in him after being faced with so much abuse. It was curious to me how Connor's experiences seem somehow "less" traumatic than Tony's, but Connor is the one who gives in to the darkness. Made me think about my own perceptions of what constitutes trauma.

Lorie Ann: Can you think of your moods as colors like Vanessa described her bi-polar experience?
Little Willow: I love colours. I had the chance to say, "ROYGBIV!" today, and I totally did. It makes sense to equate with different shades - and levels of brightness and saturation - with different moods. I think I tend to be really bright, happy colors - not neon, because that could be off-putting to some, but just really colorful and bright, energetic and vivid - warm purples, pinks, and blues. Purple is my favorite slice of the spectrum.

Lorie Ann: I can if the idea is brought to my mind, yet it doesn't happen naturally for me. My lower moments would be black and my higher would be yellow. I do think of people as colors, occasionally. I think of myself as orange.
Holly: That reminds me of that posthumously published Dr. Seuss book, My Many Colored Days, about dealing with emotions: "On Purple Days/ I'm sad./ I groan./ I drag my tail./ I walk alone." It has been a useful tool to help my little one know how to identify her feelings - we like red days best!

Shelf Elf: I've never thought of my moods as colors before. If I had to choose, for sure a good mood would be rosy pink and a low mood might be midnight blue or dirty snow gray. (Are those J Crew colors?)
Dia: I don't think of my moods as colors, but in terms of weights. A dark mood is like a pile of stones crushing me. A good mood is like being light as a balloon.

Melissa: I love thinking of moods in terms of colors. But I adore the dirty snow gray that Shelf Elf described -- to me, that is calm and cool and comforting.

Lorie Ann:  From your life experiences, can you share differences or similarities in the mental health care depictions?
Holly: When I was in college, I volunteered at a halfway house for medium- to high-functioning mentally ill people. Even if they battled similar illnesses (depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, etc.), the way each person handled their situation varied incredibly - and that would dictate the treatment to some degree. I was a bit surprised that the characters were hospitalized for such an extended period, but perhaps it just seemed that way in the context of the story since we delve so deeply into their processes.
Dia: Yes, the length of their hospitalization surprised me, too. The people I have known who have been hospitalized for mental illness always have difficulty with the insurance and being booted out before they are ready. It's like drive through deliveries for pregnancy. Also, as a person with bipolar illness, I found the portrait of Vanessa's ( I believe it was Vanessa) experience of bipolar illness quite different from mine. But I have never had to be hospitalized.

Lorie Ann: I have visited people in mental health institutions and read about them in other books. Ellen's depictions appear spot on to me. I was exposed to an even tighter control system than these characters underwent. An example is that patients I saw were penalized for positioning their hands as fists.
Melissa: It was nice not to have to worry about insurance issues in the book, so we could really get into the emotions of the characters without that stress. Sadly, real life doesn't afford that ease as often. In terms of the characters' thoughts, however, it all seemed very realistic to me, though I have no real experience in this world.

Lorie Ann: Which character's triumph did you rejoice most in? I have to say Tony again. I believe he came from the furthest point. Don't you?
Holly: I agree, Lorie Ann! He came from the furthest point, though for me it also has something to do with feeling the closest to him. He was the most emotionally open character, so it was easy to relate to and cheer for him.

Shelf Elf: I think you're right Holly, that you can easily connect with Tony, and root for him, because you're invited into his story just that little bit more than with the other two characters. I felt like Vanessa was still pretty fragile at the end of the book, not quite at the "triumphing" stage.
Little Willow: Tony had quite a journey. In fact, I felt as though the story wasn't really done at the end of the last chapter - it could have gone on for a little while longer, easily, with Vanessa and Tony. It felt as though it ended because of Conner.
Dia: I agree with you, Little Willow, that the story could have gone on.

Melissa: Oh, me too! Get me a sequel! I still want to see Connor's parents crack a little bit. I know there's warmth in there somewhere. What happened to them?

Lorie Ann: Have you ever translated your life experiences to therapeutic poetry exercises?
Little Willow: At times. I write lyrics more often than poems, only because they come to me that way: I'll open my mouth and words and music automatically join together in song.
Lorie Ann: Always! Even as a child my outlet was to write poetry.

Shelf Elf: I was more of a diary writer growing up. I suppose that's just a different way of putting emotions on the page. It helped to write things down.
Dia: Wildly, madly, constantly, as a teen and young adult when living was so hyper-intense. Once I started writing novels though, I wrote less poetry, though I have returned to it in the last six months, not exactly as therapy, but as a need to capture my experience.

Melissa: Oh yes. But these poems were not for sharing. They were of the teenage "Sadness is..." variety (groan). I still love to peek at them sometimes, but I'm slightly embarrassed.

Lorie Ann: Have you ever participated in any kind of wilderness adventure program?
Little Willow: I have not.

Lorie Ann: No, I haven't! But I think it would be awesome. I can't physically at this point unless a cure for rheumatoid is invented. But that could happen!

Shelf Elf: Can we count the first time I ever went back-country canoe camping with the fella? I think we should count that. It felt like a survival adventure. I did go sea-kayaking in the Queen Charlotte Islands, but we had brownies for dessert most nights, so I don't think that counts either.
Holly: No... (laughing) I think the wildest outdoor adventure I've been on lately is geocaching with Justina!

Melissa: I did a wilderness ropes course bonding thing with my yearbook staff in high school, but it wasn't as intense as their trek. I did see on MTV's "From G's to Gents" today, though, that the guys had to do a climbing course. It's such a classic metaphor for the changes going on inside during a big transformation.

Lorie Ann: Without giving too much away, were you surprised by the change in Tony? Conner's choice?

Shelf Elf: As the end of the book approached, I could see that Conner's choices seemed to be shrinking, rather than opening up. I could see his ultimate decision coming a bit before it occurred. In some ways, I think that made it even more affecting as a reader, being in the position of watching him sink down and being powerless to do anything about it.

Lorie Ann: Me, too, Shelf Elf. You fear what is coming for Conner, and Ellen didn't shrink back from writing it.
Little Willow: I have to say it again: Oh, Conner. 
Dia: I saw it as one character rising and another character sinking.

Melissa: The transitions were seamless, so I wasn't surprised while I was reading and progressing with the story. But if you'd have told me at the beginning how it was going to end, I'd have wondered how in the heck we'd get there.
Lorie Ann: Tony surprised me. But I could follow his new revelations.
Little Willow: I understood his revelations and his feelings, but I wished that he had had more time there towards the end to figure things out for himself, and not only attached all of that to Vanessa, but go out into the world and see what happened, to see if he was bi and/or have them say that labels weren't necessary.

Lorie Ann: Do you feel like Vanessa will no longer cut herself?
Dia: Vanessa has a ways to go, so I'm not certain.
Holly: One aspect I thought was implied but not explicitly stated was that Vanessa not only cut to feel, but also to punish herself for her past. By the end, she had begun to forgive herself, thus may not have felt the need to punish herself any longer. I felt very hopeful that she would continue on this upward path.

Lorie Ann: I was still a little worried about her. 
Little Willow: So am I. I'd be very watchful if I were in her household.

Melissa: I worry about her cutting too, but she did make progress, so there's hope.
Lorie Ann: Which adult character was the most disappointing or most disliked by you?

Shelf Elf: Conner's mother. She was so cruel and superficial and cold. Kind of the anti-mother. It was hard not to hate her.

Lorie Ann: Same for me, Shelf Elf. ICK! Boo!
Little Willow: Definitely. She was an ice queen.

Melissa: Ditto. But I also was annoyed by the employee who stared at Vanessa lecherously. That seems extra offensive in a place where people are trying to heal and feel safe.

Lorie Ann: Absolutely, Melissa. *shivers* What are your take-aways from Impulse?

Shelf Elf: One of the biggest take-aways for me is the idea that so often it is the ability to connect with others, even others who are troubled themselves, that can help a person find the way out of a damaging place.

Lorie Ann: I'm charged to reach out, despite seemingly different backgrounds and circumstances. We can help and encourage one another. We can build a support structure even if our traditional one has failed to meet our needs.
Dia: To try to write a verse novel with this much truth!

I'm looking at anger in a new way--searching for the sadness underneath, in myself and in others.

Lorie Ann: Have you ever encountered wildlife like Vanessa when she comes face to face with a deer or when the group stumbles upon the wild Mustangs?
Holly: Yes! I'm thinking of the time Justina hosted our writing group at a cabin, and one morning, in the ice and snow, a dozen deer traipsed across the lawn outside the dining room window. I couldn't get enough of looking at them, the morning sun contrasting their thick coats, their tranquility.

Shelf Elf: I grew up in the country, so I've had lots of wildlife encounters. One of my most vivid childhood memories is the winter morning my sister and I were waiting at the end of our very long driveway for the school bus and this coyote walked out of the woods just down the road from us. It stopped in the middle of the road and stared straight at us for what felt like forever. We were sure it was going to come eat us up, but then he just turned and loped away into a farmer's field.

Lorie Ann: Me, too! I had been touring Alaska for six weeks and never spotted a moose. The last night there, I took a walk alone and crossed paths with a moose and her baby. Thankfully, they simply walked away. Another time I was alone by a river and felt I was being watched. Sitting up and turning around, I found two deer just six feet away staring down at me. What were they thinking? Nothing quite beats an orca whale's eye locked onto me, even though it was through a glass partition. Totally haunting. 
Little Willow: I love cats. I always talk to strays or friends' pets, no matter what the species - cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, anything! Though I encounter wild squirrels more than the large wild creatures you've all mentioned, I would have no fear if I happened upon a deer, a moose, etcetera. Of all wildlife, I'd most like to hang out with otters and big cats, especially snow leopards and clouded leopards.
Dia: I have had close encounters with bear, deer, and coyotes. I once encountered a group of deer and I froze. They didn't know what to make of me. They browsed around me, even sat down. It was amazing until I sneezed.

Melissa: Oh, yes. I'm not a nature girl, generally, but I've been captivated by the wonder of the hummingbirds in my grandmother's garden, who would fly so close, as long as I sat still.
Lorie Ann: Thanks to the postergirlz and divas for hanging at the roundtable. Like King Arthur's knights. :~) Many thanks to Ellen for bringing honesty and realism to the literary world. How many readers have been touched and helped through her gifts? A multitude!


Special note: In July 2008, we put Jay Asher's novel Thirteen Reasons Why in the spotlight, which led to many serious discussions about suicide prevention. One of our postergirlz, Jackie, then created this list of suicide prevention resources. Since Impulse also deals with the topic of suicide, we wanted to again bring this list to your attention. Download the document.

To learn more about Impulse and author Ellen Hopkins, read the April 2009 issue of readergirlz. After you've read the book, we hope you'll join us at the readergirlz blog to discuss it further.
Tags: book group, books, postergirlz, readergirlz, roundtables

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  • Red Hands by Christopher Golden

    A new Christopher Golden book is here, and I can't wait to get my hands on it! Here's the jacket flap summary for Red Hands: In bestselling author…

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