Friendship and Belonging: “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton

Director of Ford Library, Ms. Barb Lazar
How many of you recognize this first line?

“When I stepped out into the sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home (1).”
Considered one of the first, if not the first, truly young adult novels, The Outsiders by S.E.Hinton, first published in 1967, is an enduring classic that speaks to the universals of belonging, the dynamics of high school, class and popularity, and the reality of adolescence. The realism of the story shocked many reviewers at first; it was not a horse book or “Mary Goes to the Prom.” Hinton wrote based on the reality of her surroundings.
“They walked around slowly, silently, smiling.
         “Need a haircut, greaser?”  The medium-sized blonde pulled a knife out of his back pocket and flipped the blade open.
         I Finally thought of something to say. “No.” I was backing up, away from that knife. Of course I backed right into one of them. They had me down in a second. I fought to get loose, and almost did for a second; then they tightened up on me and slugged me a couple times. So I lay still, swearing at them between gasps. A blade was held against my throat.
         “How’d you like that haircut to begin just below the chin (5)?”
So, feeling a bit nostalgic, and looking for stories of connection, Ponyboy, Johnny, Dally, Sodapop, and Two-Bit came to me. Their story of friendship and survival was one of the first books I taught as a young teacher, and it was definitely one of the first that engaged my students, even though it was from a different time and place. Kids saw parallels with West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet—the courage to reach across deep divides to find friendship and human connection.
Taking place over two weeks, we experience Ponyboy’s struggles with friendship, violence, life-and-death, and strength. After a tragic accident, Ponyboy and Johnny take off and learn that the world needs to grow beyond “greasers” and “socs” if we are to heal.
During the month of November, many students and writers these days participate in NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. Though this was not in existence when Hinton wrote this, it started much the same way. Given an assignment to write about something that mattered, the conflicts in town and at school were topical and relevant. What started as a short vignette, for a high school English class, and the encouragement from an English teacher, this is now considered one of our modern classics.
“I could see boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing. There should be some help, someone should tell their side of the story, and maybe people would understand then and wouldn’t be so quick to judge a boy by the amount of hair oil he wore. It was important to me. I picked up the phone and called my English teacher. 
         “Mr. Syme, this is Ponyboy. That theme – how long can it be?”
         “Why, uh, not less than five pages.” He sounded surprised. I’d forgotten it was late at night.
         “Can it be longer?”
         “Certainly, Ponyboy, as long as you want it.”
         “Thanks,” I said and hung up.
 “I sat down and picked up my pen and thought for a minute. Remembering. Remembering a handsome, dark boy with a reckless grin and a hot temper. A tough, tow-headed boy with a cigarette in his mouth and a bitter grin on his hard face. Remembering – and this time it didn’t hurt – a quiet, defeated-looking sixteen-year-old whose hair needed cutting badly and who had black eyes with a frightened expression to them. One week had taken all three of them. And I decided I could tell people, beginning with my English teacher. I wondered for a long time how to start writing about something that was important to me. And I finally began like this: When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home… (180).”
Susan Hinton was only 16 when she wrote The Outsiders, and the publishers suggested she go by her initials since they thought people would assume a girl couldn’t write a book like this. She understood then and understands now, that even today, the names change, and the groups change, but kids get it how similar their situations are to Ponyboy’s. We see both “windows and mirrors.” Just ask Tony and Maria, and Romeo and Juliet…