S.E. Hinton: The Teenaged 'Outsiders' Author Who Invented Young Adult Fiction

Culture | July 22, 2020

Left: S.E. Hinton as a nurse attending to Matt Dillon's character in 'The Outsider.' Right: the novel 'The Outsiders.' Source: IMDB; Wikimedia Commons

Writing novels for and about teenagers -- The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, Tex and others -- S.E. Hinton invented the Young Adult (YA) fiction genre. Hinton wrote The Outsiders as a teenager, so it makes sense that these coming-of-age stories would connect with generation after generation of young readers. The struggles and emotions of characters like Ponyboy Curtis and Johnny Cade, their attempts to do the right thing in a world of peer pressure, indifference, class division, and adolescent machismo, ring true in any era. What's surprising to many readers is that Hinton is a woman, yet her best-known novels all center on teenage boys, and the depictions are note-perfect.

S.E. Hinton Always Knew She'd Be A Writer

Source: (American Library Association).

Susan Eloise Hinton was born on July 22, 1948 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to a door-to-door salesman and an assembly line worker. A voracious reader who believed from a young age she'd become a writer, she noticed that books with teen protagonists were quite limited and did not encounter real-life situations. She imagined writing a book about kids that they would want to read with characters that were true-to-life and facing more realistic, more challenging situations. In 1965, she started writing a book that did seem to portray teenagers with veracity although her novels were rife with violence and evasion. Her first book, The Outsiders (published 1967), was based on two rival gangs at her high school, Will Rogers High School, and she began writing it after a classmate was beaten up by the rich kids as he walked home. Her inspiration came not only from her experience in high school, but also from the novels that she read, including Gone With the Wind, and Great Expectations, and the stories of Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury.

Hinton received her contract from the publisher of The Outsiders the day she graduated from high school

Her Publisher Advised Against Publishing Her Books As 'Susan'

With C. Thomas Howell, who played Ponyboy. Source: (Tulsa World)

By 1967, her freshman year in college, she was a published writer, and The Outsiders would eventually sell more than 14 million copies. Prior to publication, her publisher suggested that she use her initials rather than her given name, to ensure that if a male reviewer were to read the book, they would not discount it based on her gender. It was, after all, a first person narrative. The Outsiders was written from the perspective of Ponyboy, a Greaser (the working class street kids). The Greasers are in conflict with the Socs (Socials), who are the privileged upper-class kids. The conflict escalates until Ponyboy faces a situation which changes his life.  

Hinton's Eventual Success Brought Writer's Block

With Ralph Macchio, who played Johnny Cade, the character who sacrificed his life in The Outsiders. Source: Pinterest

The novel was not initially successful, and her first royalty check was for $10. However, it did achieve success in one key area: teachers were using it in their classrooms. This led to the realization of a new market, one for young adults. Because she was breaking new ground in terms of literature for young people, they started calling her “The Voice of Youth.” The book also won several awards. Her success led to writer’s block, and she did not write again for the next three years, until she met her boyfriend in college. When she was in her freshman biology class, she met David Inhofe, whom she would later marry.

Inhofe encouraged her to write again, and she began work on her second young adult novel, That Was Then, This is Now (1971), which, like The Outsiders, was set in Tulsa.  The novel also picks up some of the tensions from The Outsiders, as does her third novel, Rumble Fish. (1975). Her fourth book, Tex (1979), is set in a fictional suburb of Tulsa, and also features some of the characters from her earlier books, including Mark from The Outsiders, who is the escaped convict hitchhiker who kidnaps Tex and Mason. In 1988, she wrote Taming the Star Runner, her final book with a teenage protagonist; it, too, was set in Oklahoma, but unlike her other novels, was written in third person. She did not write it in first person because as part of her writing process, she has to become the character when she writes in first person and she had just had a child when she began the novel.  

Hinton's Books Captured Teenagers' Concerns Then, And Now

Hinton and Matt Dillon in 'The Outsiders.' Source: Pinterest

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Hinton explained why The Outsiders continues to connect with young readers 50 years after its publication:

Teenagers still feel like I felt when I wrote the book, that adults have no idea what’s really going on. And even today, that concept of the “in crowd” and the “out crowd” is universal. The names of the groups may change, but kids still see their own lives in what happens to Ponyboy and his friends.

She also shared a favorite memory:

I used to work in a shoe store. While fitting work boots on some tough young guys, someone told them who I was. One of them said “You made me cry on the school bus.”

Hinton Resisted Overtures From Hollywood

The cast of The Outsiders. Source: (Pinterest).

Although she was initially hesitant to allow her novels to be made into film, Hinton’s first four novels were all turned into movies, starting with Tex in 1982, followed by her other works. She played a role in the creation of three of the films, in addition to screenwriting and appearing in cameos. Her horse, Toyota also had a role in Tex. Tex was a key early film in the careers of Matt Dillon and Emilio Estevez's film career, and The Outsiders, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, was an early credit for those two actors as well as Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane and C. Thomas Howell, who played Ponyboy.

Venturing Out From Young Adult Fiction

Source: (The Oklahoman)

Since publishing Taming the Star Runner, Hinton has written a picture book, Big David, Little David, and a chapter book for younger readers, The Puppy Sister. In 2004, she released an adult novel, Hawkes Harbor, which features a vampire. She wrote Some of Tim’s Stories in 2007, a collection of short stories which experiments with point of view.   

Tags: Books | S.E. Hinton | The Outsiders | What Did She Do?... | Young Adult Fiction

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!