S. E. Hinton irrevocably altered the course of juvenile literature in America with her first novel. The Outsiders was published when she was seventeen and was her stark answer to the fluffy high school stories about proms and dates typical of the 1960s. "Where is reality?" she asked in an essay explaining her motivation in the New York Times Book Review. In other narratives for teens, she could not find "the drive-in social jungle ... the behind-the-scenes politicking that goes on in big schools, the cruel social system," or the teenagers who lived in those settings. In contrast, her story was real, graphic, emotional, and true to the challenges of being a teenager in twentieth-century America. In addition, it was an exciting narrative that captured teenagers' attention. It drew a wide audience, particularly boys who were reluctant readers. Thirty years after its publication, the novel remains immensely popular and has sold more than four million copies in the United States. Its adaptation to film was a great success as well.
The novel is the story of a traumatic time in the life of a recently orphaned fourteen-year-old boy named Ponyboy Curtis. He lives on the East Side, a member of the lower class and a gang of "greasers." Quiet and dreamy, Ponyboy has conflicts with his older brother and guardian, Darrel, who keeps the family together. The greasers—whom Ponyboy distinguishes from "hoods"—are the heroes of the tale. Set against them are the upper-class socials, or Socs, who enjoy drinking, driving nice cars, and beating up greasers. The circumstances of this social situation result in the death of three teens. The story explores the themes of class conflict, affection, brotherly love, and coming of age in a way that young people readily appreciate. This novel's portrayal of disaffected youth has been criticized for its violent content, but it is now regarded as a classic of juvenile literature. It can be considered one of the first examples of the "young adult" genre, and after its publication literature for teens gained a new realism, depth, and respect for its audience.