In 1965, after failing a creative writing class in her junior year of high school, sixteen-year-old Susan Eloise Hinton, unsatisfied with the literature that was being written for young people at the time, began writing what would become one of the most revered Young Adult novels of all time. Within two years, she sold her book, titled The Outsiders, and it was published by Viking Press by the time she was eighteen. Since it was first published in 1967, over 15 million copies have been sold, it’s been a constant on middle school and high school reading lists, it’s been translated into 30 languages and was made into a popular and widely-revered movie in 1983. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Stay Gold, Pony Boy” uttered, then you have some familiarity with both the book and the feature film’s lasting impacts. Don’t believe us? Just search for the hashtag #staygold on Twitter or Instagram or Google the phrase—you’re sure to find hundreds of thousands of posts.
The Outsiders has permeated the culture so deeply it is still somewhat surreal to even Ms. Hinton. “The rest of my books I wrote, but ‘The Outsiders’ was meant to be written. I got chosen to write it,” she told the New York Times. “That’s the only way I can deal with it.” That’s not to say that The Outsiders wasn’t without initial controversy upon its release. At the time of its publication—and still to this day—it is often challenged and debated. It was ranked #38 on the American Library Association’s Top 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 – 1999. The book has even been banned from some schools and libraries because of the novel’s frequent portrayal of gang violence, underage smoking and drinking, strong language and family dysfunction.
The Outsiders also brought some personal challenges for its author. Ms. Hinton goes by Susie, but when she wrote The Outsiders, her editor, Velma Varner, suggested she use her gender-neutral initials out of concern that her given name would “throw some of the boy readers off.” She continued to use these initials in her career, even in more recent publications. Once published, The Outsiders gave Ms. Hinton a lot of publicity and fame, but that also meant that she was under a lot of pressure. She was quickly becoming known as “The Voice of the Youth” among other titles. This kind of pressure and publicity resulted in a three-year long writer’s block. It wasn’t until her then-boyfriend (now-husband), upset with her depression that resulted from her blockage, insisted that she wrote two pages a day if she wanted to go anywhere. This push eventually led to what would become her second full-length novel, That Was Then, This Is Now, in 1970.
Despite the initial challenges and controversies, The Outsiders proved to be one of the most revered novels ever written about teenage life. Even though it landed on many banned lists, it has since become a part of the curriculum for middle and/or high school grades in many schools today. It especially gained recognition when Francis Ford Coppola directed an adaptation of the novel in 1983. The Outsiders film received positive acclaim and performed well at the box office. It’s become an iconic coming-of-age film for many teens across the nation. It was also noted for it’s cast of up-and-coming stars, including C. Thomas Howell (who won a Young Artist Award for his work on the film), Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio and Diane Lane. The film and its case helped spark the Brat Pack genre of the 1980s. Following The Outsiders, Diane Lane, Matt Dillon and Emilio Estevez went on to appear in two more of Coppola’s film adaptations of Hinton novels Rumble Fish and That Was Then… This Is Now.
But what made this YA novel have such a lasting impact on its readers and young adult culture as a whole? It’s not just because it’s a fairly simple read or because it had a film starring some young, dreamy-eyed heartthrobs. The Outsiders is not just a novel about teens and gang violence. It speaks to the universal language of teenage angst. Something Hinton was able to translate on a personal level at the time of writing it, being a teenager herself. “I think that’s why it still resonates with teens, because they feel like that,” she said. “Your feelings are over the top. You’re feeling and seeing injustice, and you’re standing up against it.”
In The Outsiders, justice comes by way of class warfare between the greasers, a gang of poor teenage boys, and the Socs, the rich kids from the other side of town. A fairly common topic of films and plays, but what makes The Outsiders stand out among the rest is the fact that the greasers in Hinton’s novel have the ability to show great affection and emotion in the face of the masculine-dominated cultural norm of the 1960s. In almost every chapter, someone is crying or on the verge of tears. It’s natural. It’s relatable. It’s part of the human teenage condition. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a book where boys are this emotional,” said Daniel Kraus, books for youth editor at Booklist, a review magazine published by the American Library Association. “They’re crying, they’re embracing, they’re holding each other in bed.”
Meanwhile, St. Louis University Professor Jennifer Buehler believes that other factors also contribute to the book’s endurance, including the universal title and the seemingly genderless author, as well as the librarians and teachers who have supported the book from the start. In 1988, an influential award further cemented the canonical status of the book, when it received the first Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults. “So even though ‘The Outsiders’ was 21 years old, and the movie had some life,” Buehler told the Times, “there’s something about that literary award from the world of librarians and library service that helped teachers along their way.”
Now, fifty years since the book’s publication, it’s more popular than ever—and not just for teenage readers. Self-described Outsiders fanboy Danny O’Connor, most well known for being a member of 1990s hip-hop group House of Pain purchased the Tulsa, Oklahoma Outsiders House from the film for $15,000 in 2016 and has plans on turning it into a museum. So far he’s amassed a nice collection, including a first-edition hardcover of the novel, memorabilia from the movie, vintage photographs and hard-to-find editions of the book. Next on his search list is a replica of the claw-foot tub like the one eighteen-year-old Rob Lowe stepped out of with just a towel around his waist in the film. He’s still searching, but his quest has gotten many people on board.
The Outsiders continues to influence young readers and even after five decades, it shows no indication of slowing down or becoming dated. As for Ms. Hinton? She’s just as surprised at its impact as she was when it was first published. “I’m as amazed as anybody else that it’s lasted as long,” Ms. Hinton said. “So many people say to me after reading it, ‘I’m looking at people differently now than I used to,’” she said. “Let’s all quit judging each other.”
Truer words have never been spoken. Stay gold, Ponyboy… Stay gold.
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