It’s hard to believe that it was fifty-two years ago this Spring that S.E. Hinton wrote one of the best-selling young adult novels of all time – her era-defining book, The Outsiders. The Outsiders took after another great coming-of-age story The Catcher in the Rye, which was published in 1951. And like J.D Salinger’s novel, the Outsiders took away the adults’ perspective and focuses purely on the teenager experience. In other words, The Outsiders is about teenagers and spoke directly to young readers.
What is perhaps even more amazing is that the author, Susan Eloise Hinton, was an Oklahoma high school student when she completed the manuscript she was then calling “A Different Sunset”. The novel was a major feat for Hinton, who started writing it when she was 15 and sold it two years later. Her mother had to co-sign the contract because Hinton was still considered a minor.
The Outsiders—which still sells half a million copies every year—forever changed the way books are written for young readers. The Outsiders depicts a group of lost boys including the orphaned Curtis brothers and their gang called “greasers”.
Hinton has acknowledged that she borrowed from life which is probably why it feels authentic and real. Her first-person narrator, Ponyboy, and his friends were inspired by a true-life gang. Yet their world of drive-ins and drug stores, freight trains and churches, could be anywhere in middle America. Perhaps that is what makes the book so universal and appealing.
The struggle between individuality and the need to be accepted by the group has since become a standard theme of the genre. Hinton takes for granted that teens engage in vices — brawling, smoking, drinking, and sex. While they may seem commonplace themes today, at the time it was scandalous to even consider teenagers were enjoying such activates The depictions of sexuality and violence are actually tame by today’s standard (think Game of Thrones and Sopranos) but shocking to a 60s audience, but what is threatening here is Ponyboy’s matter-of-factness. He acknowledges that his love of cigarettes may impair his track team activities.
The book has a mature view of brawling and fighting as common escapism, yet fundamentally useless. These things are, Hinton seems to be saying. Kids experience them as much as adults do, and often more acutely. For adult readers, her treatment refuses to cloak such wrenching experiences in the language of the fantastical or faraway, the foreign or the long ago. For kids, she seems to say: Walk right in.
The film adaptation of The Outsiders, starred breakout roles for Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze and Tom Cruise. Another of her novels Rumble Fish was also brought to the big screen. Both were directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Hinton co-wrote the script for Rumble Fish with Coppola.
S.E. Hinton promised she’ll never write a sequel to the book or participate in a remake of its movie version. Like Catcher in the Rye, this is probably for the best. Such masterpieces are best left alone. Fifty-two years later, the book is as relevant to teenagers around the world as it was back then.
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