S. E. Hinton broke new ground in young adult fiction with the publication of The Outsiders. The novel’s gritty, realist portrayal of teenage life was striking, as was the fact that it was written by a teenaged woman. Hinton has stated that she wrote The Outsiders because it was the kind of story that she wanted to read. Tired of books filled with clichés and obligatory happy endings, she longed to write stories about real people with real problems, hoping to earn the respect of her audience by giving them stories to which they could relate.
Hinton started a trend in young adult writing, which became a battleground for readers, parents, teachers, and librarians. Debate raged over whether The Outsiders and the books that followed in its footsteps were too realistic for their own good. Such books portrayed issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, death, and divorce. Parents, educators, and critics of realism worried that they could encourage bad behavior in their readers. These criticisms tended to be based on simplistic analyses of books’ content, so that The Outsiders was seen as a story about teenage violence, rather than a story about the characters and how they dealt with such violence. Instead of focusing on what Ponyboy learned as a result of being both a victim and an aggressor, some critics deemed the book to be without merit for glorifying violence, missing Hinton’s message entirely.
Hinton explores many themes over the course of the novel, such as bridging the gap between rich and poor, honor among the lawless, and the retention of innocence. In Ponyboy’s first meeting with Cherry Valance, she tells him “Things are rough all over.” Later in the story, Ponyboy asks her if she can see the sunset on the West Side of town. When she says yes, he tells her that he can see it on the East Side, too. When Ponyboy first meets Cherry, he thinks of her as just another Soc, wondering how a cheerleader who drives a Corvette could possibly have problems. By the end of the story, Ponyboy’s question about the sunset is an acknowledgment that, while the worlds they live in are very different, there are still things in each that are the same and that provide common ground.
The Greasers are honorable, even though society at large might not see them that way. They stick up for one another and will stand together to defeat enemies or authority figures. Hinton’s characters perform acts of honorable sacrifice. Dally takes the blame for a crime he did not commit instead of turning in his friend, Two-Bit. Johnny kills Bob in order to save Ponyboy. Ponyboy and Johnny go into a burning building to save children in peril. Dally goes in to save them. Their devotion and loyalty to one another is admirable.
Perhaps the most important of the themes Hinton explores is that of the retention of innocence. When Johnny explains to Ponyboy what Robert Frost’s poem means by “staying gold,” he is trying to tell Ponyboy not to give up his innocence and become jaded by the world, as Dally has. Johnny hopes that if Ponyboy passes this lesson on to Dally, it might help Dally recapture some of his lost innocence, too. The message comes too late for Dally, but it is not too late for readers.
Despite its critics, The Outsiders became a commercial success and won numerous awards. In 1967, it was named one of the best teen books by the New York Herald Tribune and was also a Chicago Tribune Book World Spring Book Festival Honor Book. In 1983, a film adaptation directed by Francis Ford Coppola was released. With more than fourteen million copies in print, The Outsiders is among the best-selling young adult novels of all time.