In School Library Journal, Jane Abramson commented that the book was "stylistically superb" and that it "packs a punch that will leave readers of any age reeling." A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote, "Ms. Hinton is a brilliant novelist," and Margery Fisher, in Growing Point, noted, "Once more in the American urban scene is a book as uncompromising in its view of life as it is disciplined." She also wrote, "Of the three striking books by this young author, Rumble Fish seems the most carefully structured and the most probing." Jay Daly wrote in Presenting S. E. Hinton, "In the end we respond to Rumble Fish in a much deeper way than we do to [her previous book] That Was Then, This Is Now. It's an emotional, almost a physical response, as opposed to the more rational, intellectual reaction that the other book prompted." He also commented that the book "works as a novel.... And there is a name usually given to this kind of success. It is called art."
However, not all critics agreed that the book was superb. In the Nation, Michael Malon remarked that he found it difficult to believe that Hinton's novels, including Rumble Fish, are realistic portraits of average American teenagers. He commented that the books' popularity is largely due to their action-packed narratives, simplistic plot structures, intense emotional tone, and well-defined principles. He...
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