Published in 1967 when its author was just 17 years old, The Outsiders tells the story of 14-year-old greaser Ponyboy as he navigates the class conflicts that arise from being orphaned and disenfranchised in post-war America. The book was adapted for the big screen in 1983 and as a stage play in 2006. SE Hinton wrote the novel to address the lack of novels that she wanted to read:
One of my reasons for writing it was that I wanted something realistic to be written about teenagers. At that time realistic teenage fiction didn’t exist. If you didn’t want to read Mary Jane Goes to The Prom and you were through with horse books, there was nothing to read. I just wanted to write something that dealt with what I saw kids really doing.
Kimberly Reynolds, author of Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction, notes that until the nineteenth century, ‘fiction had identified the liminal space occupied by teenagers as belonging to girls and women’ (p. 74). In these books – think Little Women and What Katy Did – female characters in their teen years do not graduate directly into the adult world of work and/or matrimony but are allowed the opportunity to exist in a space in between adulthood and youth, learning and growing and being prepared to take on adult roles*. The post-war period saw the concept of the teenager entered the cultural consciousness. During this period YA as a genre rose to prominence and lent authenticity to adolescent experience in the face of a conservative ruling-class ideology.
SE Hinton’s four novels, The Outsiders (1967); This Is Now, That Was Then (1971), Rumble Fish (1974) and Tex (1979), and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) among others, form part of this generic shift. These books, which recognise the volitily of teen-hood for boys, foreground the adolescent crisis of identity by offering romantically isolated protagonists navigating social and political power dynamics, usually from position of alienation and oppression. These entwicklungs- and bildungsroman are probably best exemplified by JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951).
Like The Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders is a first person, highly subjective narrative delivered by its protagonist. The prose is unpolished and occasionally immature, lending authenticity to the more unbelievable or at least extremely convenient elements of the plot, the dei ex machinis that might otherwise engender a tired eye roll instead fly by almost unnoticed and without the least blip in the readers suspension of disbelief.