The Outsiders 40th Anniversary editionby S. E. Hinton, Viking, 2007, 192 pages, ISBN: 0670062510
The Outsiders is the quintessential middle school book. It always seemed so corny to me, like West Side Story, so I never read it. Then last year when my son was in seventh grade, his language arts teacher assigned it to the class. My son loved The Outsiders so much, he devoured all of S. E. Hinton's books and hungered for more when he'd exhausted the Hinton canon. I saw that last year The Outsiders was on a list of top ten paperback children's books of all time. It's no wonder, as there is little to date this book, and teens dig it as much today as they did in the late sixties when it was first published. And, I confess, I love it, too.
The Outsiders centers on Ponyboy Curtis, a greaser who lives on the wrong side of the tracks with his two older brothers. His parents had been killed in a car wreck; his oldest brother Darry, the twenty-year-old head of the family, works two jobs to support his family. Middle brother Sodapop, a sixteen-year-old high-school dropout, works at a gas station. The family's goal is to stay together and keep fourteen-year-old Ponyboy, a bright studious kid, in school. Ponyboy is a dreamer, who loves movies and books, but, according to Darry, lacks commonsense. Darry is worried that because Ponyboy doesn't think and often gets into trouble, he and Sodapop will be taken away and put in a home.
As if the boys don't have enough to worry about, being greasers, they are engaged in class warfare with the Socs, the gang of rich kids who live on the other side of town. As Ponyboy says, "It wasn't fair for the Socs to have everything. We were as good as they were; it wasn't our fault we were greasers." One night Ponyboy and his friend Johnny are attacked by a group of Socs; the ensuing fight leaves one kid dead and two on the run.
Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was sixteen and understands the teenage mind as only a teenager can. She herself said that she wrote it at the right time, as "the feelings you have at sixteen you can't recapture." And her focus is completely on the teenagers, as there are no major adult characters. Like a Charlie Brown cartoon, Ponyboy's world is free of parents. Ponyboy's parents were loving, but are now dead. Most of the living parents are abusive and neglectful, and many of the greasers often stay over at Ponyboy's house. The absence of parents adds an element of fun. If Ponyboy and his brothers want chocolate cake for breakfast, they bake a cake. If they want friends to hang around all night, their friends come over. I suspect this aspect of the book is a big draw for the teens. What teenager doesn't at some point daydream about a life without parental interference?