Sunday, April 11, 2010

'The Outsiders': The Most Important YA Novel Ever

Young adult fiction is so much different than it was when I was considered a young adult (about a thousand years ago). Back then, it seemed like YA fiction consisted mostly of really old novels, ‘classics’ according to my numerous English teachers who forced stuff like The Hobbit, Cheaper by the Dozen and Animal Farm down my throat. I hated most of them, partially because I was required to read them, partially because I was already reading stuff like Stephen King, but mostly because most of them really weren’t YA novels at all. For me, the stand-out exception was S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, which was actually about young adults, who were at least depicted somewhat realistically.

Of course there were always plenty of YA novels featuring kids as protagonists, but I never found too many that weren’t either condescending and/or just plain boring. Maybe it was the teenager in me at the time, but I felt like most of those authors were older writers who simply tried to write at young adults, not necessarily about them, and if they did write about them, many characters seemed as realistic as Yoda.

But Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she herself was just a teenager, and I think that voice is one of the main reason the novel is still relevant and timely today, even after 43 years. Yeah, some of the main characters may be just a little overly-sensitive for teenage boys, but the important thing is they sound like real teenagers, not an adult’s idea of one. I don’t personally know S.E. Hinton, and I doubt she had no other intention other than writing a good story, but she captured teenage angst and class struggle brilliantly.

I also think its no coincidence that her subsequent novels, though some were very good, never had the intensity and rich characters of The Outsiders. By the time she completed her next novel, That Was Then, This Is Now, she was no longer the age of the people she wrote about, and it shows.

Young adult fiction today owes a lot to Hinton’s first and best novel, which wasn’t necessarily written for kids; it was written about them. No, you don't have to be a teenager to write about teenagers, but it sure helps if you at least know what it’s like to be one. I think that’s why such authors as Gordon Korman, Lois Duncan and Jerry Spinelli are so good at what they do. And even though I’m not a fan, Stephanie Meyer is one author who knows this better than anyone, and why her books have transcended the YA genre to become a cultural phenomenon. The only real difference between her Twilight series and other gothic romance novels aimed at adults is the ages of her characters, and the fact they sound like teenagers (well, sort of).

Twilight has since out-sold The Outsiders, and even though I personally don’t like the book at all, as a YA writer myself, I have to admit it’s pretty cool that a young adult novel has had such wide-spread appeal (the downside, of course, is the YA market is now glutted with vampire-romance novels by other writers hoping to strike while the iron is hot). In addition, Twilight, along with J.K. Rawling’s Harry Potter series, helped redefine what YA fiction can be. In modern YA fiction, no subject or genre is really off-limits.

Of course, Twilight is not of the same genre as The Outsiders, nor is it likely to become a long-time staple of novel study in English classes. But it is likely to continue to be a widely-read series long after Meyer draws a curtain on these characters, mainly because the one crucial element Twilight shares with The Outsiders is that its teenage characters feel like teenage characters...troubled, flawed, imperfect and, sometimes painfully, being forced to leave childhood behind.

Some of today’s YA novels are increasingly edgy, dealing with such subjects once considered taboo (drug-addiction, homosexuality, suicide, school violence, etc.). As with other genres, some are good, some are bad, but all of them owe more than a passing debt to S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, one of the first novels to realistically capture life as a modern American teenager.

As an educator who has since taught the novel for a few years in middle school, it’s amazing how well The Outsiders has held up over the years (even surviving a truly terrible film adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola, who seemed hell-bent on turning it into an epic). Yes, it’s a novel of its time, but its themes are still relevant, its characters are still intriguing and Hinton’s prose is so perfect that not even she was able to pull it off again.

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