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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

A scene from The Outsiders Published by Gale Cengage

Although The Outsiders has been a favorite with teens ever since its publication in 1967, adult critics have been more cautious in their assessments. Initial reviews debated the supposed "realism" of this startling new work, as well as the skill of its young author. Thomas Fleming, for instance, questioned Hinton's portrayal of the Soc-Greaser conflict. He noted that in his hometown it was the poor kids who beat up the rich ones, not the other way around. Nevertheless, he added in his New York Times Book Review assessment that "Hinton's fire-engine pace does not give the reader much time to manufacture doubts." Nat Hentoff similarly observed in Atlantic Monthly that the plot of the book was "factitious," or forced and artificial. He praised the author, however, for addressing issues of class that were absent in previous books for teens: "Any teenager, no matter what some of his textbooks say, knows that this is decidedly not a classless society." School Library Journal contributor Lillian Gerhardt similarly hailed Hinton's portrayal of class rivalry: "It is rare-to-unique among juvenile books ... to find a novel confronting class hostilities which have intensified since the Depression." In another early review, William Jay Jacobs favorably compared The Outsiders with a popular classic from the 1950s, J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Other critics have observed similarities between Hinton's Ponyboy and Salinger's Holden Caufield. "But as much as the sensitive, thoughtful Ponyboy resembles Holden, his [environment] is irrevocably different," Jacobs noted in Teachers College Record. "All around him are hostility and fear, along with distrust for the 'system.'" The critic did fault some of the dialogue as "false" and the themes as a bit too "profound" for "hoods." Nevertheless, he noted that the novel had a more mature tone than most first novels, and had "relevance for today's [society]."

By 1970, The Outsiders had already been identified as a powerful influence on young-adult literature. Many critics questioned whether it and other examples of the "New Realism" were a positive influence on teens. Attempts to ban the book were made in various places. As a result, many reviews of the time were particularly negative. For instance, a Times Literary Supplement critic worried that young readers "will waive literary discriminations about a book of this kind and adopt Ponyboy as a kind of folk hero for both his exploits and his dialogue." Other critics faulted the slang dialogue and sometimes moralizing tone. In his Children's Book News review, Aidan Chambers noted that the book was flawed because it was written with self-indulgence "and could profitably have been cut." Nevertheless, reviewers could not deny the appeal the book had for teen readers. As Chambers added, the first-person narrative had "interesting qualities," such as compassion and lots of action.

Critics have also recognized, however, that the strength of The Outsiders lies in its characters. In her 1969 work Children's Reading in the Home, May Hill Arbuthnot praises the book's "incisive portraits of individual boys growing up in a hostile environment ... The characters are unforgettable." Alethea K. Helbig and Agnes Regan Perkins made a similar observation in their 1986 work Dictionary of American Children's Fiction. They remarked that while some of the incidents in the plot seem unbelievable, "they hold up well during reading, probably because the author makes Pony's concerns and the warm relationship between the brothers seem very real." Cynthia Rose likewise stated in Monthly Film Bulletin that Hinton's "characterisation of the emotional claustrophobia and relentlessly limited prospects of the poor white world—where sacrifice so often defines love—is her most impressive literary achievement."

Hinton's novel has maintained its popularity for over thirty years, leading later critics to analyze its appeal. In a 1986 Nation article, Michael Malone suggested that it was...

(The entire section is 1,078 words.)