“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.” (Hinton, page 5)
This is both the first and the last line of The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton’s first published novel, written when she was sixteen years old. It is about a boy named Ponyboy Curtis, living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where young people are divided into two groups, the Greasers (wrong side of the tracks) and the Socs (rich kids). Ponyboy is a greaser but wants to move beyond that role without betraying his friends. Perhaps the novel isn’t “great literature”, but it appeals to junior high students who so often feel that they, like Ponyboy, are outsiders.
I still remember the first boy — an “outsider” — I gave it to. His name was Gary, and he was sixteen years old in grade eight. He told me that no one had ever been able to make him read a whole book, but when I told him something of the plot (gang rumbles, runaways, a hero saving other kids’ lives), he took home The Outsiders.
Three days later he was back. He said, “I finished it. Do you have any more like that?” I did indeed have more, but Gary dropped out of school soon afterwards. Tragically, he suffered severe brain damage in a motorcycle crash a few months later. I think of Gary each time another boy tells me he’s never read a book.
I love this novel because it continues to speak to my students today, just as it did to students I taught twenty years ago. In all the times I’ve recommended it, I’ve had only two students say they didn’t enjoy it. Many, many more have loved it, and come back asking for more.
As with all books that people love, this one sparks interesting responses. Ponyboy loves poetry, and quotes Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. When I talk about this book with groups of students, I read the poem and we share what they think it means to be “gold”. Every time I do this, kids sign out our copies of Robert Frost’s books. Because Ponyboy reads Gone with the Wind, circulation of that always goes up too.
I continue to look for books with the power and voice of The Outsiders. I want books that show kids that they are not alone, that other people their age share their feelings of fear or loss or pain or loneliness. I want books about kids who battle their problems, who are at times overwhelmed by them, but survive. I want to help the outsiders see that they really aren’t outside at all.