As a literary voice for teenage strife and disenfranchisement, it’s hard to top The Outsiders.
Teenagers have been finding their world taken seriously in the novel for 50 years now. It’s hard to argue with those who say that The Outsiders was a watershed moment in young adult literature (often abbreviated as YA). After all, unlike the works that preceded it, S.E. Hinton’s first novel was written while she was a teenager busy enduring high school.
But it’s not true that The Outsiders was the first book written for—or about—teenagers and their problems. Midcentury classics that feature teenage protagonists like To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and A Wrinkle in Time (1962) had already been published and enjoyed by teenagers and adults alike. But those classics that teenagers enjoyed were by and large written for adults and co-opted by YA readers. Most books specifically marketed to teens were serial novels and science fiction and, as Hinton once described them, had plots like "Mary Jane goes to the prom."
Instead, Hinton wrote for "real life teens" in her words—teenagers who smoked, drank and fought in everyday settings.
Writing during an extremely fertile period in American literature, Hinton was surrounded by great writers dealing with universal themes like loss, belonging and mortality. Many of those books, writes Jon Michaud for The New Yorker, “were originally written for adults but have since become favorites among teen-age readers.”
The books Hinton herself was reading when she wrote The Outsiders mostly didn’t have teenage protagonists, she told Michaud. And the “handful” that did had protagonists who didn’t reflect her experience. “I was surrounded by teens and I couldn’t see anything going on in those books that had anything to do with real life,” she said. So she wrote one that reflected the “real life” she was surrounded by.
The book also reflected the books Hinton was reading—the ones not marketed to teenagers.
“What struck me most as an adult reader (and sometime Y.A. novelist) is the degree to which The Outsiders is derivative of the popular literature of its time,” Dale Peck wrote in 2007, on the book’s 40th birthday. Although The Outsiders is often held up as a uniquely teenage book, many other classic novels that today we would classify as YA had obviously influenced sixteen-year-old Hinton’s work, Peck wrote. The book explicitly or implicitly name checks everyone from Robert Frost (whose writing was not addressed to teenagers, but who most teenagers are compelled to read in high school) to J.D. Salinger, short-story writer Shirley Jackson and Southern Gothic author Carson McCullers. And that’s not an exhaustive list.
Read through the perspective of its influences (and some are so direct, writes Peck, as to invite mutterings of plagiarism), The Outsiders isn’t so much a YA book as a book about books and films that young adults are likely to be exposed to and influenced by. But, he writes, "The question is not where the material comes from (“West Side Story” is based on “Romeo and Juliet,” after all, and James Dean’s antihero is a latter-day Bartleby or Raskolnikov) but what the writer does with it."
Hinton's greatest strength lay in re-translating all these influences and writing about them through the eyes of a teenager writing for other teenagers, he writes. In that sense, she did create YA. At the same time, Hinton's book was received by other teenagers in a way that indicated there was a market for literature dealing with the teenage experience, including its dark and difficult parts.
After she wrote the manuscript, a friend’s mother gave it to a literary agent, and the rest is history.