Stay gold, Ponyboy: 40 years of “The Outsiders”

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In a fitting end to Banned Books Week, S.E. Hinton‘s oft-banned novel The Outsiders is getting attention for reaching its 40th year in print. A 40th Anniversary edition of the teen classic has been released, and Hinton is back in the spotlight she does not particularly relish.

If you’ve never read it, The Outsiders is a pretty extraordinary book. Written in the mid-1960s, it’s the story of a group of Tulsa teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks and the enormous violence and loss they experience in one traumatic week. Despite all the action, it’s primarily a character study of protagonist Ponyboy Curtis, the other members of his “greaser” gang, and a few of their antagonists, “the Socs” (pronounces Soashes). The book has sold more than 13 million copies (and still sells about half-a-million copies a year) and is considered by some to be “a turning point in how literature was presented to children.”

One of the coolest things about The Outsiders is that S.E. (Susan Eloise) Hinton began writing it when she was fifteen years old, and learned that it had been accepted for publication on the day she graduated from Will Rogers High School. (My favorite part of this story is that she received a “D” in Creative Writing during the time that she was penning the book.)

I know the Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” because of The Outsiders (“Nature’s first green is gold,/Her hardest hue to hold.”) because I read the book so many times, it kind of took hold. I believe I was surprised to learn that S.E. Hinton was female, largely because the main characters of her young adult books are all male — and the stories are told in the first person. But Hinton, a self-identified tomboy, has said that she adopted an androgynous name and wrote about male characters in part because although “girls will read boys’ books, boys usually won’t read girls.” That’s still true (J.K. Rowling had to make up a middle initial to be androgynous!) and still sad. Hinton has, however, written one book from a female perspective: The Puppy Sister is written from the perspective of a female puppy.

Of course, The Outsiders is not merely a wildly successful first novel. It spawned a beautifully filmed, but ultimately unsatisfying, brat-pack movie in 1983. (The 2005 re-release is somewhat better.)

While the book certain contained melodramatic elements — it was written by a 16-year-old, after all — the movie overdid it just a bit too much.

Here’s my favorite over-acted moment:



In the movie’s defense, so much of the book is in Ponyboy’s head that it’s hard to capture that effectively onscreen. At least S.E. Hinton was involved in the process, so she kept it pretty honest. And she had a fun little cameo.

The novel — or perhaps the movie — also spawned a short-lived television show in 1990.

After all these years, teenagers still read it regularly. As the Will Rogers High School librarian notes, “students apparently still like her books enough to steal them.” If you haven’t read the book, pick it up and give it a read. And if you have, read it again. It’s short, and it’s worth it.

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