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Novelist Susan Eloise Hinton is credited with revolutionizing the young-adult genre by creating realistic characters, settings, and dialogue that are representative of teenage life in America. Her classic novel The Outsiders (published in 1967 when she was seventeen years old) was the first in her short but impressive list of books to feature troubled but sensitive male adolescents as main characters. Hinton’s subjects include social-class rivalry, poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction, and teenage cruelty.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing up in a City on the Plains
E. Hinton was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the setting of most of her novels. She was an avid reader as a child and soon began writing stories about cowboys, horses, and other topics of interest to her. As a teenager, Hinton enjoyed reading but often found her options limited: ”A lot of adult literature was older than i was ready for. The kids’ books were all Mary Jane-Goes-to-the-Prom junk. I wrote The Outsiders so I’d have something to read.” while a student at will Rogers High School, she began writing The Outsiders and saw the novel evolve through four drafts before submitting it to Curtis Brown literary agent Marilyn Marlow. A publication contract with Viking arrived during her high school graduation ceremony. Loosely based on her own experiences and those of friends and acquaintances, the book is about the ongoing rivalry and conflict that leads to a deadly confrontation between two gangs—the lower-class ”greasers” and their upper-middle-class counterparts, the ”socs” (short for ”socials”). The Outsiders was an instant hit among teenagers and sold more than four million copies in the United States.
With the money she earned from The Outsiders, Hinton attended the University of Tulsa and earned a degree in education in 1970. She met her future husband, David Inhofe, while in school, and it was he who encouraged her to write her second novel, That Was Then, This Is Now, published in 1971. Hinton considered her second novel superior to the first. Hinton continued her pattern of producing a novel every four years with the publication of Rumble Fish in 1975 and Tex in 1979. The former work centers on a delinquent youth struggling to gain a tough reputation, and the latter (set in California) on two teenage brothers left in each other’s care by their traveling father.
In 1988 Hinton’s fifth novel, Taming the Star Runner, was published. During the nearly ten-year interim between the publication of Tex and Taming the Star Runner, Hinton started a family and worked as a consultant on the film adaptations of her novels. Involved in the casting, scriptwriting, directing, and even acting, Hinton found the experience pleasurable, but she still preferred writing to consulting. Through her popular novels and their equally popular film adaptations, Hinton has developed a reputation as a perceptive writer of young-adult fiction. In 1988, she was honored with the first American Library Association/ School Library Journal Author Achievement award for her body of work.
Current Ventures and Film Career
In the 1990s, Hinton wrote the text for two children’s picture books, Big David, Little David (1995) and The Puppy Sister (1995). The books for the most part have been well reviewed. ”I don’t think I have a masterpiece in me, but I do know I’m writing well in the area I choose to write in,” Hinton explained to Dave Smith of the Los Angeles Times. ”I understand kids and I really like them. And I have a very good memory. I remember exactly what it was like to be a teenager that nobody listened to or paid attention to or wanted around.”
Works in Literary Context
The Sensitive Male
Writing from the male perspective, Hinton has a unique understanding of her subjects that allows her to create believable characters. Ponyboy Curtis, the fourteen-year-old narrator in The Outsiders, has warranted comparison to J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye. Hinton’s books are usually narrated by macho, poor, and ”cool” teenage boys who are also vulnerable and occasionally cry. They are often orphans, as in The Outsiders, or have been abandoned by their parents, as in Tex. Despite the fact that Hinton’s protagonists often skip school and get into trouble with their teachers, they frequently enjoy reading, and three of them—Ponyboy Curtis, Tex McCormick, and Travis Harris—are presented as potential poets or writers. Indeed, Hinton’s characters make frequent allusions to their favorite books which include works as diverse as Great Expectations (1861), Gone with the Wind (1936), Smoky the Cow Horse (1926), and the poems of Robert Frost.
Hinton has produced five novels about ”greasers,” ”hoods,” and abandoned teenagers. Her characters are frequently larger than life, almost mythic, and are social outcasts, such as Dallas Winston of The Outsiders and Motorcycle Boy of Rumble Fish. Hinton’s novels suggest how young adults are frequently shaped by their environment and are concerned with their struggles, only sometimes successful, to leave the past behind and face the future. Hinton has the great ability to create authentic characters who sound like real young adults and their journeys towards adulthood will likely remain popular with future readers, whether “Socs” or “greasers.”
Works in Critical Context
Some critics, like Michael Malone of The Nation, have chastised Hinton for ”mythologizing the tragic beauty of violent youth” and ”avoiding the problem of parental authority and conflict by placing her characters outside of their families. She has also been criticized for creating similar plots in consecutive books. But librarians cite Hinton as one of the most popular authors among ”reluctant readers in the junior-high age group, as well as among teachers, who regularly use her novels as assigned reading. ”Teen-agers should not be written down to,” Hinton said in the New York Times Book Review. ”Anyone can tell when his intelligence is being underestimated. Those who are not ready for adult novels can easily have their love of reading killed by the inane junk lining the teen-age shelf in the library.
The Outsiders is Hinton’s most popular novel. Thomas Fleming writes in the New York Times Book Review, ”[Hinton] has produced a book alive with the fresh dialogue of her contemporaries, and has wound around it a story that captures, in vivid patches at least, a rather unnerving slice of teen-age America.” Saturday Review critic Zena Sutherland similarly observes that The Outsiders is ”written with distinctive style by a teen-ager who is sensitive, honest, and observant. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer, however, notes that ”the plot creaks and the ending is wholly factitious, and remarks that the language ”is both arresting and tiring to read in its repetitiousness. While also faulting the author for unlikely plot twists and occasional overwriting, Lillian N. Gerhardt comments in School Library Journal that Hinton is a writer ”seeing and saying more with greater storytelling ability than many an older hand.
In Tex, Hinton ”has taken a larger canvas on which to group more varied characters, asserts Margery Fisher of Growing Point. But New York Times Book Review contributor Paxton Davis believes that the number of unusual events occurring in the story strains credulity: ”Even by the standards of today’s fiction, S. E. Hinton s vision of contemporary teenage life is riper than warrants belief….[Tex is] busier and more melodramatic the real life it purports to show.” Lance Salway agrees that Tex is very theatrical, but comments in Signal that ”a writer as good as Hinton can carry it off effortlessly; one believes implicitly in the characters and cares what happens to them.” ”In this new book,” Fisher concludes, ”Susan Hinton has achieved that illusion of reality which any fiction writer aspires to and which few ever completely achieve.”
- Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1989, pp. 65-76.
- Collier, Laurie and Joyce Nakamura. Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1993, pp. 1117-1120.
- Daly, Jay. Presenting S. E. Hinton. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
- ”S. E. Hinton.” In Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, 1st ed. Ed. Laura Standley Berger. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994.
- Hinton, Susan. ”Teen Agers Are for Real.” New York Times Book Review (August 27, 1967).
- Jacobs, William Jay. ”Reaching the Unreached.” The Record Volume 69, No. 2 (November 1967): 201-202.
- Lempke, Susan Dove. Review of Big David, Little David. Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (February 1995): 200.
- Malone, Michael. ”Tough Puppies.” Nation (March 8, 1986): 276.
- McCoy, Jody. Review of Big David, Little David. School Library Journal (April 1995): 102.
- Rodell, Susanna. Review of The Puppy Sister. New York Times Book Review (November 19, 1995): 37.
- Smith, Dave. ”Hinton, What Boys Are Made Of.” Los Angeles Times (July 15, 1982).
- Wallace, Carol. ”In Praise of Teenage Outcasts.” Daily News (September 26, 1982).
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