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The Outsiders was published in 1967, a restless time in the United States when teenagers were outspoken and rebellious. They hated the Vietnam War and the establishment that caused it to continue. They resented the fact that young people from minorities and underprivileged backgrounds were not given opportunities to succeed. To voice their dissatisfaction, they had sit-ins and protests; many became hippies, and others turned to drugs. It was this society that formed the background for Hinton's first novel. She was only sixteen years old at the time of its publication. As a result of her being a teenager herself, she was able to realistically understand and depict the plight of the underprivileged youth, Pony Curtis, as he battled to survive in a world of gang fights and dysfunctional family. She truly knew the desperate need of her youthful characters to be accepted by young and old alike.
In most of Hinton's novels, including The Outsiders, adults are never major characters. In fact, most of the adults in her books are rather weak individuals. In The Outsiders, Jerry Wood and Mrs. O'Briant are two teachers who stand by rather helplessly when the church catches fire, while her teenage characters go into immediate action. Mrs. Cade is the only other adult in the novel, and she has never done anything to rescue Johnny from the abuse he receives from his father; she does not even seem worried about him when he runs away after Bob is killed. When she finally comes to the hospital to see her son as he is dying, she only complains about his ingratitude.
The language that Hinton uses in her novels is very typical of teenagers of the time. The dialogue is always liberally peppered with street slang, adding to the realism of the characters. Hinton admits that she is a character writer. The young people that she brings to life in her fiction are much more important to her than the plot. She says that even though her teenagers are always fictional, "I always know my characters, exactly what they look like, their birthdays, what they like for breakfast . . . [they] are as real to me as anyone else in my life, so much so that if I ran into one of them at the laundry, I wouldn't be all that surprised."
Although Ms. Hinton is no longer a teenager herself, she still concentrates on writing about teenage characters and gears her novel to a teenage audience, largely because she has met with great success in the past and her teenage readers always want her to write more.