S.E. Hinton Reflects on the 50th Anniversary of The Outsiders

The book that launched the young adult genre celebrates its golden anniversary this month.

S.E. Hinton was only 15 years old when she wrote the short story that would later evolve into The Outsiders. By high school graduation she had a publishing contract. But she wasn’t looking for one. “I never even thought about it getting published,” Hinton tells Real Simple. “I was just living it.”

When The Outsiders was published in 1967, YA was not yet a marketable genre. As Hinton describes it, there were very few books for teenagers at the time. “If you were finished reading books about horses and animals, but you weren’t ready for adult books, there was nothing left to read,” she explains. “All of the teen books were about ‘Mary Jane Goes to the Prom.’ To me, that did not reflect teen life as I was seeing it.”

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An avid writer since grade school, Hinton set out to solve that problem: to write something she would want to read herself. Moved by the story of a friend who was beat up on his way home from school, Hinton delivered an unflinching look at the bitter rivalry between the Greasers, a tough street gang, and the more well-to-do Socs. Along the way, she captured the importance of family (whether it be through birth or through choice) and the painful but necessary struggle to find one’s place in the world.

The Outsiders went on to sell more than 14 million copies. It became required reading in some schools and was banned in others. In 1983, a film version directed by Francis Ford Coppola was released, helping to launch the careers of young actors including Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, and Tom Cruise.

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In honor of the book’s semi-centennial anniversary on April 24, Penguin Young Readers released a 50th anniversary edition last fall featuring letters exchanged between a 16-year-old Hinton and her editor, behind-the-scenes photos from the film adaptation, and notes from cast members reflecting on the movie. Hinton herself strolled down memory lane with Real Simple to look back on the legacy of the novel and why she thinks it has managed to stay popular for so many years.

What inspired you to write The Outsiders?
There were about three inspirations. One was I just plain liked to write and always have. Two, I was upset about the social warfare that was happening between the cliques in my high school. The two extremes were the Socs and Greasers, but I could have written an encyclopedia to include everybody: the artsy-crafty people, the theater people, the jocks. I grew up in a Greaser neighborhood, but I was placed in college-track classes with a lot of Socs, so I could see both sides. I was kind of just an observer. But when my friend got beat up, that was when I got mad and wrote a short story about a kid who was beaten up on his way home from the movies. The third reason I wrote the book was because I wanted to read something that dealt realistically with high school life as I saw it.

You weren’t looking to publish the book. How did your book deal come about?
I was talking to a friend and she was telling me that her mother wrote children’s books. When I told her I wrote too, she had her mother take a look and she connected me with someone who gave me the name of an agent. I didn’t know the difference between an agent, a publisher, an editor, or anything!

What did you think looking back at the letters you and your editor, Velma Varner, exchanged?
I hadn’t seen those letters since I had written them! What floored me was how my style hasn’t changed. I showed them to my husband and he said, “You could have written these yesterday.” I also loved seeing how they treated me like an adult professional and I replied like an adult professional.

You were also heavily involved with the film. Were you happy with the adaptation?
I was there for everything: I co-wrote the screenplay with Francis [Ford Coppola], I helped with rehearsals, I helped scout locations. We shot the whole book, but the film had to be cut drastically. It cut out the heart of the book, which for me is the bond between the brothers. Francis started getting so many letters from fans of the book asking what had happened to certain scenes that he was getting kind of embarrassed about it. He was supposed to show the movie to his granddaughter’s class so he went back and cut the missing scenes back in and re-released it [in 2005]. But I loved working on the movie. I grew so close to Francis and the boys.

What advice do you have for young, aspiring writers?
Don’t worry about the publishing, worry about the writing. I hear from kids, “I don’t know if I want to write this book because I don’t know if I’ll ever get published.” You should only worry about how good your writing is. You have to read and practice, read and practice. That’s all I did to develop my writing skills: read and practice. You don’t have to take lessons in creative writing. Jane Austen is a great creative writing teacher. She’s in the library, and the library is free. I re-read all of Austen’s books every year and I always find something new.

How are you feeling about the book’s 50th anniversary?
Well, I was surprised at the 20th anniversary, but I just can’t be surprised anymore. It’s multigenerational: Grandparents are sharing it with their grandkids. I began writing it when I was 15, and it’s never been out of print. The Outsiders has been part of my life as long as just about anything.

Why do you think the book still resonates with kids today even if they’ve never heard of a Soc or Greaser?
They understand the concept of the in-group and out-group immediately. They also understand the concept of feeling like nobody else feels the way you do or thinks the way you do, even in your own group. I think I just wrote it at the right time in my life. I couldn’t have written it four years later; I couldn’t have been that idealistic. And that’s what the kids relate to, those true feelings I had at that time.