S.E. Hinton wrote most of the classic coming-of-age novel The Outsiders when she was just 16 years old. That year, she got a D in creative writing.
Obviously her teacher was blind to what makes Hinton’s writing so special: a talent for narrative verve, a keen understanding of class dynamics and a precision of language as only a teenager can understand it.
That precision was on display in a letter the young Hinton wrote to her editor at Viking in 1966, just seven months before the book was published. Her letter, which accompanied a rewrite of the manuscript, explained small changes she made and stylistic guidance, like capitalizing the gang name “Soc,” but lowercasing “greaser” since “‘greaser is just a term like ‘hood’ or ‘thug’ or something and it’s not a title like ‘Soc’ is.” She noted a few changes that seemed to come at the request of her editor, Velma Varner: “I took out all the ‘pansy’s’ and changed Johnnycake to Johnny except in a very few instances.”
But it’s her discussion of the book’s title, which had not yet been chosen, that reveals how astutely Hinton understood the story she was telling. “About the title,” she wrote, “I don’t like ‘The Greasers’ because for one thing, they’re not known as ‘greasers’ all over the country. (On the coast they’re called ho-dads.) I’m sure any teen-ager will know who I’m talking about once they read the first page, but I’m not sure they’ll know who it’s about by the title. This goes double for adults. I’m still stuck about the title. If you can help me, please write.”
When Penguin Young Readers publishes its 50th anniversary edition of The Outsiders on Nov. 1, readers will remember for themselves the power of that first page: “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home. I was wishing I looked like Paul Newman—he looks tough and I don’t—but I guess my own looks aren’t so bad…”
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