By: Lisa Rand
Working with youth in a public library, one of the great joys of my job is to help a young person find a book that will help them see they are not alone. Since her first novel was published in 1967, S.E. Hinton has been beloved by youth for creating relatable characters and tenderly writing hard truths. Her books continue to be enjoyed by avid and reluctant readers, to be taught in classrooms, and to be challenged by would-be censors.
Born July 22, 1948, Susan Eloise Hinton wrote her first novel, The Outsiders, during high school, and it was published in 1967, her graduation year. Thanks to Hinton’s authentic voice, her books continue to resonate with teens. Her writing, while fiction, was inspired by real-life circumstances, and carries the freshness of an experience still unfolding. Hinton set the story in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, but the situations transcend geographic boundaries. The terms she used to describe different cliques vary from place to place and change with time, but the challenge of finding a place to belong remains relevant. High schools still have popular groups and outcasts, and communities still wrestle with economic inequality.
In interviews Hinton has explained that as a teenager she found the few available depictions of teenagers in books very unsatisfying. As she said to Jon Michaud of The New Yorker, “I was surrounded by teens and I couldn’t see anything going on in those books that had anything to do with real life.” The fact that she wrote her book while still in school has served as solid inspiration for young writers.
For teens, The Outsiders is relatable because it depicts real problems faced by many young people, including gang violence and abusive homes. The same elements that make the book an outstanding read also landed The Outsiders at #38 on the American Library Association’s list of the Top 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of the 90s. Subsequent Hinton titles, including That Was Then, This Is Now, Tex, and Taming the Star Runner also have been challenged.
The books are not all violence and fighting, but are driven by beautifully written characters. For example, in Ponyboy Curtis we have a narrator who can say, “I liked my books and clouds and sunsets,” giving readers permission to have a quiet, tender side. Tex and Rusty-James also reveal their heartbreaks and deepest wishes. For teens who spend exhausting days trying to act tough, this is a precious gift.
Some would-be-censors have challenged Hinton’s works for the absence of responsible adults — indeed, any significant adults at all. In an interview HInton responded. “Like every other teenager, I was sure the adults had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know how adults thought. I didn’t ‘get’ them, so it was easier for me to leave them out.” Of course, for young readers living without responsible adults in their lives, this feature increases relatability.
In an op-ed for The New York Times Hinton wrote, “Writers shouldn’t be afraid that they will shock their teenage audience. But give them something to hang on to.” That is exactly what she does in her books. As intellectual freedom advocates, may we continue to ensure that readers have access to her works for countless years to come.
Lisa M. Rand is a youth services librarian in southeastern Pennsylvania. She exercises her commitment to equity and access for everyone by serving on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Lisa has studied at Simmons University and Kent State University. Whenever possible she travels, visiting libraries and walking in the footsteps of favorite fictional characters. Find her on Twitter @lisa_m_rand.