Often considered the most successful novelist for the junior high and high school audience, Hinton is credited with creating the genre of realistic young adult literature with the publication of her first book, The Outsiders (1967), at the age of seventeen.
Although not a prolific author, she is acclaimed for writing powerful and insightful fiction about adolescent males in hostile social environments. Her works are often acknowledged for their authenticity, candor, and appeal to young adults, especially teenage boys. Although her books include topical elements such as gang violence and drug abuse, Hinton focuses more on character and theme, an attribute praised for contributing to the universality of her works.
As a teenager in Tulsa, Oklahoma, S. E. 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." Based on events that occurred in her high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the novel describes the rivalry between two gangs, the lower-middle-class greasers and the upper-class Socs (for Socials), a conflict that leads to the deaths of members of both gangs. Narrated by fourteen-year-old Ponyboy, a sensitive, orphaned greaser who tells the story in retrospect, The Outsiders explores the camaraderie, loyalty, and affection that lie behind the gang mystique while pointing out both the likenesses in the feelings of the opposing groups and the futility of gang violence; through his encounters with death, Ponyboy learns that he does not have to remain an outsider. Initially regarded as controversial for its unflinching portrayal of disaffected youth, the novel is now recognized as a classic of juvenile literature as well as a unique accomplishment for so young a writer.
The Outsiders was a major success among teenagers, selling more than four million copies in the United States. The book's popularity enabled Hinton to attend the University of Tulsa, where in 1970 she earned an education degree and met her future husband, David Inhofe. However, being catapulted into fame and fortune at eighteen was not without problems; Hinton had a writer's block for several years. "I couldn't even write a letter. All these people were going, 'Oh, look at this teenage writer' and you think, God, they're expecting a masterpiece and I haven't got a masterpiece."
Eventually, however, Hinton produced a second novel, That Was Then, This Is Now (1971), a tale of two foster brothers, Bryon and Mark, who are moving apart; as one becomes more involved in school and girlfriends, the other moves deeper into a career of crime and drugs. In Rumble Fish (1975), Hinton continued exploring the themes of gang violence and growing up in the story of a disillusioned young man who, in a struggle to acquire a tough reputation, gradually loses everything meaningful to him. Hinton's next book, Tex (1979), which follows two brothers left in each other's care by their rambling father, likewise investigates how delinquent youths try to make it in a world shaped by protest, drugs, violence, and family disruption. Taming the Star Runner (1988) tells of a fifteen-year-old's self-discovery during a summer spent on his uncle's horse ranch.
In each of her books, Hinton depicts the survival and maturation of her adolescent male protagonists, tough yet tender lower-class boys who live in and around Tulsa and who grow by making difficult decisions. Using a prose style noted initially for its urgency but more recently for its more controlled, mature quality, Hinton addresses such themes as appearance versus reality, the need to be loved and to belong, the meaning of honor, and the limits of friendship. Underlying Hinton's works is her depiction of society as a claustrophobic and often fatal environment that contributes to the fear and hostility felt by her characters. Although she has been accused of sexism for inadequately developing several of the young women in her books, Hinton is often praised for the overall superiority of her characterizations and for her sensitivity toward the feelings and needs of the young. She has also written the screenplay for the feature film version of Rumble Fish with Francis Ford Coppola. In 1988, Hinton received the first Young Adult Services Division/ School Library Journal Author Award from the American Library Association.
Further Reading on Susan Eloise Hinton
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 2, Gale, 1989, pp. 65-76.
Children's Literature Review, Gale, Volume 3, 1978, Volume 23, 1991.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 30, Gale, 1984.
Daly, Jay, Presenting S. E. Hinton, Twayne, 1987.
American Film, April, 1983.
Book World, May 9, 1971.
Children's Book Review, December, 1971.