Wednesday Reads: coming-of-age edition

adjective: when a person is initiated into adulthood through knowledge, experience, or both, often by a process of disillusionment


For the past six years, I’ve read the same book every spring. Many times I read the same chapter multiple times in a day.  At one point, I estimated that I had read the entire book at least 30 times. Truth is this year’s spring has been lacking simply because I’m not reading it. Before you begin thinking no book is that good, let me explain.


The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton is a classic and was required reading for my 8th grade classes. In six years of teaching, I never had one kid say they didn’t like the book (By estimates that would be around 680 students.). I guess the spring habit of reading The Outsiders feels a little cheated this year because for the last two weeks, I’ve been mulling over why the book means so much to me. 


I read the book in eighth grade, which was probably one of the most traumatic years of my life.  Most girls would agree that any year in middle school was one they WOULD NOT relive. The summer before eighth grade, my family moved from Georgia to Alabama. I left childhood friends, a captain position on the cheerleading squad, my first love, and the comfort of acceptance. My next year was filled with trying to find my place in a school of very wealthy and privileged kids, missing my life in Alabama, enduring severe injuries from a car wreck, wading through constant humiliation from a friend, and deciding whether or not God was going to be a part of my life. Needless to say, it was a rough year for me – a sort of coming-of-age year.


Ponyboy, the main character in The Outisders is 14 and struggling to make sense of the world around him.  His world contains two very distinct social classes: the haves and the have nots or as he labels it, the Socs and the greasers. In the novel, Ponyboy personally experiences a wrong in his world, stumbles through processing it (with the help of Neverland-type friends) and then decides to right the wrong.  His social and familial status doesn’t change but his view of it does. It deals with the frustrating ties of family intrinsically connected by both love and anger as well as acceptance and understanding. 


The book is a thought-provoking knot of paradoxes. Teenage stereotypes are both confirmed and negated.  The juvenile deliquent is a hero and the good kid is a societal Dr. Jekyl Mr. Hyde. Love is shown through both sacrifice and selfishness. Most of all, it authenticates the pain and the beauty of growing up. 


One reason The Outsiders perfectly portrays teenage angst and crisis is that Hinton wrote it when she was sixteen.  She was angered after seeing a friend brutally beaten by a rival social gang and decided to write away her anger, to give a voice to an unspoken injustice. She later signed the contract for publication on graduation day. But even more interesting is the fact that Hinton (a girl of 16) wrote a book where every character, save one, is a male. In fact, it was written from a male perspective so well that the publisher’s would not let her use her full name Susan Eloise Hinton; thus, the book was published under S.E. Hinton. 


Middle school, just like The Outsiders,  is full of tragic characters. Characters searching for the same things: acceptance, love, and respect. Teenagers trying to figure out who they are in an unjust world. Ponyboy, Johnny, Darry, Dally, Sodapop, and Cherry are just like the Chris, Mike, Payton, Mark, and Sarah of my teenage days. Our teenage lives were cast with friends filled with flaws and dreams; some of them even ended tragically. However, the powerful message in The Outsiders celebrates the power and beauty of friendship and growing up. Both are forever entwined and become part of who we are as adults.  


The same can be said of a great book: its story weaves with ours and changes us. So it is with The Outsiders.

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2 thoughts on “Wednesday Reads: coming-of-age edition

  1. Harry

    Great reading. Sounds like I should take a look at The Outsiders. It obviously made an impression on you. Your blog is great and the way you write and explain what you are talking about is very impressive!

    Reply

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