Young Adult Literature Before and After The Outsiders
S.E. Hinton began writing The Outsiders at just fifteen years old. She has said an impetus for writing the novel was that she wanted to read a story that reflected her own experience. Much like Ponyboy does at the end of the novel, Hinton chose to reveal a closed teenage society full of drama, violence, loss, and love. Rather than depicting an idealized version of teenage years full of friendships and proms, Hinton shows how brutal and divisive young adulthood can be and how, in some ways, there is nothing adults can do about it.
The Outsiders is a novel of psychological and social transformation, and Hinton’s realistic manner of storytelling centered around teens arguably created the young adult genre. However, the novel did follow in the footsteps of older stories told from the limited, first person perspective of adolescent protagonists, in particular J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Though not typically defined as Young Adult novels, Salinger and Twain’s stories honor the monumental transformations that occur during adolescence, particularly those that happen outside of the watchful eyes of adults.
Like The Outsiders, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is told from the limited first-person perspective. Huck is a bit younger than Ponyboy and lacks the latter’s earnestness and reliability, but in other ways, their lives are strikingly similar, filled with dramatic and sometimes violent events. Huck is kidnapped by his father, fakes his own death in order to get away, and ends up on a raft floating down the Mississippi River with Jim, a runaway slave. While on the river, Jim and Huck have various life-and-death adventures that force Huck to figure out how he feels about slavery and what he wants from his life. These events, and the theme of the adolescent’s search for true selfhood conducted outside the traditional gaze of mainstream adult monitoring, tie both novels together.
Additionally, both The Outsiders and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rely on the charisma and personality of young adult narrators. Ponyboy and Huck tell stories that are violent and bleak; they don't always show them in a positive light, but readers still want them to find hope at the end of their dark stories. The voices of boys trying to puzzle out where they fit in the world connect both stories across time to one another and to modern readers.
By choosing a young adult voice to narrate their stories, both Twain and Hinton chose to value the young adult experience. Both authors also have their protagonists undergo social and psychological transformations that underscore the importance of the adolescent experience. Huck’s transformation makes him realize he is better off not returning to “civilization,” while Ponyboy chooses to remain with his family, but both boys gain a deeper understanding of the forces that influence their lives. This understanding allows them to make more mature and informed choices about who they are and where they want to be.
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye follows sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield for the three days he spends after being kicked out of his fourth prep school. Like Huck Finn and The Outsiders, The Catcher in The Rye is told from the limited first-person perspective of an adolescent male. Like Twain and later Hinton, Salinger employs slang and colloquial phrases to express his protagonist’s feelings in an authentic way. Holden is caught in between childhood and adulthood. His parents don’t know he’s been kicked out of school, and he is completely outside the boundaries of adult supervision. Unlike in The Outsiders, The Catcher in The Rye is populated by at least a couple well-meaning adults trying to help Holden, but they don’t understand his search for truth and authenticity and therefore they aren’t able to connect with him.
Ponyboy’s story relates to Holden’s story through their search for authentic representations of themselves and through the boys’ natural sensitivity. Like Holden, Ponyboy is searching for connections. The story he tells humanizes the greasers and is a hopeful and tentative gesture to connect to those outside of his group. Ponyboy wants to tell his story in a realistic and authentic way in order to show what the greasers and the Socs have in common. By writing down his story, Ponyboy is attempting to move beyond the in-between stage of adolescence by reflecting on past events.
Ponyboy’s writing also allows him to organize his thoughts and come to terms with the deaths of loved ones. Holden doesn’t write his story down, but we do know that he retells the story of those three days while recovering from a breakdown in a sanitorium. Holden chooses not to describe the circumstances of his breakdown but to relate instead the tale of a boy who is simultaneously trying to figure out what it means to be an adult while also being terrified of adulthood.
The Outsiders opened the door to darkness and realism in young adult fiction, but Hinton was building on a respect for the young adult experience that had been demonstrated through American literature for quite some time. The line connecting Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, and Ponyboy Curtis can also extend to characters written by Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, Judy Blume, John Green, and Laurie Halse Anderson, to name a few. All of these authors are willing to look into the dark heart of adolescence with all of its confusion, pain, and disorientation and show the reader the light at the end of the tunnel.