“Stay gold Ponyboy,” says Johnny before he dies. It is a line from S. E. Hinton’s seminal Young Adult book The Outsiders that has entrenched itself in our culture. It is about not losing all of our innocence and it may seem hopelessly melodramatic, but as Hinton says herself, it works, “because kids feel that way.”
Work it does. Hinton’s first novel rewrote the rules on YA fiction. Gone was the squeaky clean, Pat Boone, Anne of Green Gables approach, and in its place was a gritty world of danger and truancy; a world where parents couldn’t be relied upon, and gangs ran the streets; a world that perfectly captured the emotional turmoil and isolation of being a teenager.
The Outsiders didn’t just change the genre either. Since it was published in 1967 it has sold around 14 million copies. It continues to sell 500,000 a year. Not bad for something written by a 16-year-old girl.
Yeah, a girl. It turned out S. E. Hinton was a chick. Susan Eloise, 16 going on 17 when she wrote it. The publishers thought it would detract from the book’s authenticity if we knew she was a girl. They were probably right – I just figured S. E. was a he, some mysterious artist hero from the streets in the Sexto Rodriguez mold. I still find it hard to comprehend how a girl could write so insightfully about boys. Obviously girls have their own battles to go through, and they probably seem just as life-and-death, but the understanding she had of the boys’ world is still hard to comprehend.
Maybe it had something to do with her upbringing, which apparently wasn’t easy. Ms. Hinton is still now a very private person, but she has described her mother as abusive: “when I was writing she’d come into my room, grab my hair and throw me in front of the TV, she’d say, ‘You’re part of this family – now act like it.’”
Whatever it was, she could identify with people who felt they didn’t fit in, and she was able to observe the young boys in her neighbourhood with their gangs, and family problems, and just the terrible struggles of growing up, and she was able to write about it as if she was one of them.