J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is what many critics consider to be the first book in the young adult genre, as it deals with the intensely personal, emotional, and limited perspective of adolescent Holden Caulfield. After Salinger’s seminal work, however, there is a large gap– approximately sixteen years– before another book fitting the definition of young adult literature appeared. Written by a girl still in her teens and published in 1967, Susan Eloise Hinton’s The Outsiders became an instant success with both critics and young adults alike.
The Outsiders is the story of the Curtis boys, three brothers who have been recently orphaned, and their street gang in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1960s. The book deals mainly with the themes of alienation and loss, but also examines how class affects teenagers. The main characters are from the “bad” part of town, where the inhabitants are lower on the socioeconomic scale and are therefore called “hoods” or “greasers,” and there is a lot tension between the greasers and the kids from the richer part of town, known as “Socs”. These tensions lead to major clashes between the two groups, and cause violence and casualties on both sides.
The novel is told from the perspective of a thoughtful and imaginative fourteen-year old boy named Ponyboy Curtis, who likes to read Robert Frost and look at sunsets. Ponyboy and his friend Johnny are cornered by Socs one night, and Johnny kills one of them in self defense. Through the fallout from that night, Ponyboy’s tenuous world begins to crumble and he begins to realize that pain and hurt are the same, whether you are a greaser or a Soc. The novel is told from the limited perspective of Ponyboy, and as the plot progresses, the reader is able to witness the broadening of his perspective. Ponyboy learns to see things from the other side of the proverbial fence, and discovers, as one rich character puts it, that “things are rough all over”.
The Outsiders was a breath of fresh air for young adults, who were used to books with protagonists their age that were not very realistic. S.E. Hinton said in an interview that, “One of my reasons for writing [The Outsiders] was that I wanted something realistic to be written about teenagers. At that time realistic teenage fiction didn’t exist. If you didn’t want to read Mary Jane Goes to the Prom and you were through with horse books, there was nothing to read. I just wanted to write something that dealt with what I saw kids really doing.” There were plenty of books on the market for children and teenagers, but many of them were about teenagers who had lives very different from those of real adolescents. These books were, as Patty Campbell writes in her book, “superficial, often distorted, sometimes completely false interpretations of adolescence, with stock characters, too-easy solutions to problems, model heroes, saccharine sentiment, inconsistent characterization, and represented the attainment of maturity without development”.
A young adult at the time that she wrote the novel, S.E. Hinton was very aware of the lack of realistic fiction on library and bookstore shelves. Other young adults seemed to be just as starving as Hinton for realistic literature targeted towards their age group. Due to this craving, Patty Campbell recalls that the novel “hit the target and rang the bell” with young adults, and “publishers were eager to fill this lucrative new market with more and more new novels written in the new realistic style”.
Hinton’s novel has characters who struggle with poverty and violence, and lose close friends. The novel also deals with morally gray areas. Ponyboy’s friend Johnny killed another boy, but does that make him a bad person? Is a person like his friend Dally born a criminal, or do his circumstances and childhood shape him? Do rich kids like Cherry Valance really have everything that they need? While Ponyboy has his own opinions on these matters at the beginning of the book, his point of view changes as the events of the novel change him and shape his perspective. The Ponyboy at the end of the novel is older, wiser, and has experienced and learned from pain. And his story has helped many readers grapple with similar issues throughout the decades since its publication.
At the time The Outsiders was published the consensus among adolescents and critics alike was that there was a need for books with protagonists who went through and struggled with the things that real teenagers grappled with everyday. A few months before Hinton’s novel was published, Nat Hentoff summarized this feeling in the New York Times when he said, “The reality of being young– the tensions, the sensual yearnings and sometimes satisfaction, the resentment against the educational lock step that makes children fit the schools, the confusing recognition of their parents’ hypocrisies and failures– all this is absent from most books for young readers”.
The Outsiders, on the other hand, was more realistic than the other books on the market, and was in fact based on real events and the characters were based on people Hinton knew. It was gritty and violent and shocking, and teenagers loved it. Perhaps they could not relate to everything the characters went through, but the feelings of loss and alienation that the characters dealt with were, and still are, things that connect people to the book.
Hinton herself understood these things and recalls, “One day, a friend of mine was walking home from school and these ‘nice’ kids jumped out of a car and beat him up because they didn’t like him being a greaser. This made me mad and I just went home and started pounding out a story”. And generations of readers are grateful that she did.