In April of 1967, Viking Press published Hinton’s The Outsiders, and its appearance marked the start of what has since become known as young adult, or YA, literature. Prior to that date, literature for adolescents comprised leftover children’s literature (such as Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 1903) or adult novels that had been adopted by younger readers (such as Harper Lee’s 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird). The few works that were aimed specifically at the youth market (the novels of John Tunis or Maureen Daly) were simplistic and moralistic, even to adolescent readers.
In 1967 all that changed, and a new genre was born, thanks in large part to Hinton. Since that date, the genre of young adult fiction has developed into a major cultural force, and publishers regularly deploy editors and even whole divisions to work in the teenage market. What marks this genre, and what distinguishes it from the “juvenile” literary forms that existed prior to 1967, is that young adult literature talks to adolescents realistically about matters that concern them, in language that is their own.
The novels of Robert Cormier, M. E. Kerr, Paul Zindel, Richard Peck, and dozens of other young adult writers cover experiences that were absent from adolescent literature before the 1960’s but that are on the minds of teenagers nevertheless—including sex, death, and divorce. At times, young adult novels can be romantic and melodramatic, but the most significant young adult books are noteworthy for what has been called their “new realism,” for their attempts to render adolescent experience as it is really lived by teenagers. Sickness, alcoholism, single-parent families—these and other problems have become the focus of the genre.
Hinton has been an important part of this movement from the very beginning. In fact, her career has paralleled the development of the genre as she has added works to it: After The Outsiders in 1967, That Was Then, This Is Now was published in 1971, Rumble Fish in 1975, Tex in 1979, and Taming the Star Runner—after a gap of nine years (her son was born in 1983)—in 1988. More than ten million copies of these novels have been printed since 1967, and popular films of the first four have been viewed by many millions more. Hinton’s work has been at the center of any discussion of the young adult genre. In 1995, she published two works of children’s literature, Big David, Little David and The Puppy Sister. In 2004, her work Hawkes Harbor—an adult, horror-themed novel—came out.
It has been argued that Hinton’s development as a writer has been disappointing; readers may find that her fourth and fifth novels, for example, differ only slightly from her earliest ones. Rather than expanding into new literary directions, she has attempted to perfect her basic story and storytelling technique. Put more positively, her literary career has been based on a limited, although successful, formula: Her protagonists are all white male adolescents, and at the center of each of her novels is the story of a special relationship between two of them, usually brothers.
Hinton has been accused of sexism, and her female characters are indeed decidedly weaker than her male heroes. As in much young adult fiction, adult characters play minor roles in Hinton’s novels, and they tend to be weak and ineffective. The young males learn about life from themselves, or through the intense, often violent interactions with one another.
Her first four novels are all first-person narratives in which a young boy narrates his adventures with other males. While all the novels are set in Tulsa (or an urban/rural area much like it), there is also a very generalized quality to the novels: They could be anywhere, or nowhere, for there are very few historical references to date or place her works. In a sense, this happens because Hinton is writing a modern form of the medieval allegory, in which the focus is on characters wrestling with moral or ethical problems.
There is much violence in the novels, some romance (but no sex), and sanitized language that few parents would find offensive. For this reason, it seems odd that her novels, and especially the first, The Outsiders, should have been banned in a number of communities; the cause may have been the shock of the realistic descriptions of gang “rumbles.” Her plots are loose or episodic and often melodramatic; clearly her focus, and her strength, is her characterization, and it is her characters that readers remember: Ponyboy Curtis (The Outsiders), Bryon Douglas (That Was Then, This Is Now), and Tex. She generally, and especially in these first-person narrators, creates characters that are interesting and believable. Adolescents, as well as others, read her novels avidly and identify quickly with the tough but sensitive people she creates.
First published: 1967
Type of work: Novel
Fourteen-year-old Ponyboy Curtis narrates the story of his coming-of-age in a world of gangs and gang violence.
When Hinton published The Outsiders in 1967, she used her initials so that readers would think she was a man. It was assumed by publishers, in that pre-young adult era, that readers would not believe that a woman could write realistically about the urban street world that Hinton’s first novel depicts. It is a sign of how far the genre has evolved since 1967 that The Outsiders seems so tame today.
The novel is set in a small southwestern city (similar to Tulsa), but in some ways it could be any city in the United States, for the novel is vague and dreamy in form. There are few adults, and the world of The Outsiders is divided into wealthy “Socs” (short for “socials”) and “greasers,” the tough gang members who dress in their early-1960’s uniform of long hair, blue jeans, and T-shirts. The three Curtis brothers—Darry, the oldest, Soda, the middle, and Ponyboy, the narrator—live together and have taken care of one another since their parents were killed in an automobile crash some years before. Surrounding the Curtises are other teenagers who share greaser values and the Curtis hospitality.
The action in this short novel is, as in most young adult fiction, simple and straightforward and covers only a few days. After an argument with his older brother, Ponyboy and his friend Johnny run to a nearby park, where they are attacked by a carload of Socs, angry at the greasers for picking up their girls earlier that evening. In the fight, Johnny stabs and kills Bob, the Soc leader, and Johnny and Ponyboy are forced to flee the city, with the help of Dally Winston, the toughest greaser in the novel. Later, in a fire in the church where they are hiding out, Dally, Johnny, and Ponyboy manage to rescue trapped children and become heroes. The death of Bob leads to a major rumble, however, and the greasers defeat the Socs in this violent finale. Johnny dies of his wounds from the fire; Dally goes wild, robs a grocery store, and is gunned down by the police.
In the brief denouement, Ponyboy thinks of the hundreds of greasers like himself who are misunderstood and decides that someone should tell their story: “Maybe people would understand then and wouldn’t be so quick to judge a boy by the amount of hair oil he wore.” He picks up a pen and begins the theme for his English class that will become The Outsiders: “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house . . . ”
The major theme of the novel is the story of Ponyboy’s successful initiation: He has survived the rumble, worked out his relationship with his brother Darry, and, in spite of the deaths of two friends, is a better and stronger person by novel’s end. The story of Pony’s initiation also has a number of subthemes. The first is what could be called the brotherhood theme. Loyalty is a cardinal gang rule, and the rumble at the end of the novel is only a particularly violent and ritualistic enactment of this value. Dally dies, in fact, because he became a loner and broke away from his supportive greaser gang.
Working with this brotherhood idea is the more important theme of eliminating prejudice. The greasers and Socs of the novel represent two clear socioeconomic groups in this world, and their ignorance and hatred of each other are what lead to the class warfare. Differences are created by social class, Hinton says, but underneath these superficial differences are people who share more than what separates them. As Ponyboy discovers, the sunset can be seen equally well from both sides of town.
How can the characters recognize this “family of man” that they all share? One obvious answer is in being sensitive to and tolerant of the world around them and breaking down the prejudice and ignorance that keep them from this recognition. In their sanctuary, Johnny and Ponyboy share Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and later, in his dying note to Ponyboy, Johnny says that Frost “meant you’re gold when you’re a kid, like green. When you’re a kid everything’s new, dawn. . . . Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony. . . . There’s still lots of good in the world.”
The good exists if one can retain one’s childlike innocence and capacity for wonder. Ponyboy begins the novel in response to Johnny’s counsel; his sensitivity and intelligence lead him to try to tell the story of the greasers and the Socs, and what links them.
There are a number of literary allusions for a work this short: Aside from the Frost poem, there are references to Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1861) and to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). The novel also contains a very literary three-part structure (city, country escape, city) reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Adventures of...
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