I have a very complicated relationship with the many English teachers in my life (see here for details). But I won’t deny that they’re the ones who started me on books that weren’t Percy Jackson and other series doing their best to bring fairy tales/various mythologies/anything they could into the modern era, with a snarky but lovable twelve-year-old as the protagonist.
6th Grade was the first year we read books and really discussed them, and The Outsiders was the first book on the list. I guess I’ll never know if my love for The Outsiders is because it’s a good book or if it’s tied up in my love of exhaustive character analysis, but whatever the reason, it’s up there with my favorite books of all time.
It’s not because of the classic lines. “Stay gold, Ponyboy” is nice, but it’s not the reason I have three separate copies of the book, and it’s definitely not the reason my birthday presents consisted of the movie’s Blu-Ray extended edition and a necklace with a piece of the book in it (I’m not crazy, I promise). It’s because I was able to look at a group of teenage hoodlums from 1960’s Tulsa and have a conversation with them. I knew about the poems Ponyboy liked to read, I knew how Soda took his eggs with grape jelly, I knew about the soft spot Dally had for Johnny.
In every other book I’d read, backstory was given in a neat little paragraph near the end of chapter one. Relatable Boy With Strange Yet Prophetic Name (Like Bartimus Crow Or Something) has a father who is presumed dead, but we all know he’s just missing. Now let’s start the quest to go get him back, and then Relatable Boy With Strange Yet Prophetic Name (Like Bartimus Crow Or Something) and Quirky Friends 1 and 2 can have a nice triumphant ending! Even Harry Potter had an air of predictability to it, a formula that let me know if Voldemort wasn’t there yet, he’d be there soon so Harry could defeat him.
The Outsiders let me come to my own conclusions: my opinions of characters evolved as I learned new things about them, there were no plot twists or switcheroos, no sarcastic fight scenes. Just a switchblade in the hand of a sixteen-year-old and a moral dilemma.
So this post is less of a review and more of a love letter to The Outsiders, explaining why I read it at least four times a year and have three different copies of it. From when I read (and annotated) it in 6th Grade, calling the Socs “Socks” in my head and thinking I was clever for picking up on the fire symbolism, to the 50th anniversary hardcover I got for Christmas last year, along with my very own DVD (so I could look at Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze every day), The Outsiders has never been confined to its pages.
These characters spread out and get under your skin. They live beyond the story. They’ve burrowed their way into my head, as real as any of the other friends I made in middle school.
So a big thank you to Steve and Dally, for being mean guys but good people. Thanks to Two-Bit for being lazy and caring, Darry for being hard but kind, Soda for being shallow and sweet. Thanks to Johnny for being good. And the biggest thank you to Ponyboy (and S.E. Hinton) for showing me that you don’t have to be an adult to write literature for kids. In fact, sometimes it’s better if you’re not. There are countless word documents with mermaid and fairy stories that owe their existence to Ponyboy showing me I had the authority to be a writer. They’re terrible, yes, but they were a start.
I’ll probably write another post the next time I reread The Outsiders. I’ll never be done talking about it. But for now, I just want to apologize for the sappiness and nostalgia I participated in just now. It’s been 8 years and I’m still not over it. That’s why this is called, you know. Books That Changed My Life.
Let me know if you’ve ever had experience with The Outsiders, in school or out of it. Did you like it a fraction of the amount I did? Did you hate the non-extended movie version as much as I did? Or have you read it and thought it was just an okay kid’s book? When you stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, were there only two things on your mind? I’ll bet they were Paul Newman, and a ride home.