In honor of the 50th anniversary of the publication of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, David Arnold reflects on how the book inspired his own work as a writer of YA fiction.
Shortly after the sale of my first novel, Mosquitoland (Grades 7-12, Lexile HL750), something occurred to me: that word—first—denoted a second. “First” implied the assumption of more. First this, then that. And after that, then something else, and so on.
Up to that point, I had never had a problem with the word first. I was the first-born child of three, and in first grade I had my first crush on a girl whose first name was Kimberly. I was first chair saxophone in middle school, won first place in the fifth grade spelling bee, and in sixth grade I was first runner-up. First in line had its perks; first come, first serve seemed only fair; and when Amy Something (my next door neighbor who attended First Presbyterian private school, and had no idea I was a First Class dork), gave me my first open-mouthed kiss, I thought, “Ahhh, first love.”
But much like Amy Something who—when I gave her a shiny golden ring during a neighborhood street hockey match, and Keith the Bully declared that I’d probably found it in a Cracker Jack box, to which I, very smartly retorted, “Actually, I found it in a parking lot”—dumped me the second she discovered my true nature (a parking-lot-ring re-gifter), I’d been duped by the word first. My writing career, it seemed, would follow the trajectory set by Amy Something, wherein I was duped into thinking my First would be my Only.
It just never occurred to me that I might need to write a second novel, is the thing. I had no other ideas. I’d invested all the life experience and wisdom I had into my book, and since I would surely gain no further life experience or wisdom, likewise, I would surely never write another book.
And so I read.
YA Fiction Inspired By The Outsiders
There are only two books I’ve finished and immediately started reading again: Jurassic Park (Grades 9-12, Level Z+) (I was thirteen, there were flesh-eating dinosaurs and curse words aplenty, my hands were tied); and The Outsiders (Grades 7-12, Level Z, Lexile 750).
I don’t know how to explain it, except to say that when I finished The Outsiders, I simply felt I wasn’t done. The pages on pages of reckless abandon and youthful energy, kids doing kid things one minute only to jump into the fire of adulthood the next—and the person filling those pages a kid herself. Hinton began writing the book at the age of fifteen, as if the creation of such authenticity was not to be trusted in the hands of an adult. In the end, Ponyboy Curtis is the voice of youth, for youth, written by a youth.
And these rereads happened to fall right in the middle of me trying to figure out what in the world that second book would be about. Strangely, the book reminded me of one of my favorite bands, Arcade Fire. Not lyrically (though Arcade Fire does touch a little on the perils of kid-dom), but in the way their songs feel, the way the band performs, like at any minute they might hurl their guitars into the audience, and run down the road for an ice cream cone. I found myself wanting to write a book that felt like that. Youthful energy. Reckless abandon. Hurling guitars. Ice cream cones. So being a kid, basically.
I’ve always believed honesty to be the most important aspect of storytelling. Well, here’s the tough truth: I am no longer a kid, much as it pains me to say it. So if I value honesty over all (and I do), and I want to write a book that feels like ice cream cones (and I really do), how am I—an author well on the other side of young adulthood—to tell a story?
Dave Eggers, in What is the What (a captivating novel/biography about the life of Valentino Achak Deng), says, “Humans are divided between those who can still look through the eyes of youth and those who cannot. Though it causes me frequent pain, I find it very easy to place myself in the shoes of almost any boy, and can conjure my own youth with an ease that is troublesome.”
I can’t hit a curveball or play Rachmaninoff or bake a freaking cake, but ask me to conjure my own youth, and I’m there. I’m in it. So maybe it’s as simple as that. Or maybe not, who knows. What I can tell you is after multiple reads, Ponyboy is as real as ever, and after a million listens, Arcade Fire is as fresh as ever, and I did my absolute best to instill those same qualities into my own writing. I can also tell you that while writing Kids of Appetite (Grades 7-12) a character came alive, one who loves The Outsiders as much as I do.
Which, if you couldn’t already tell, is a lot.
Booksource is teaming up with Penguin Random House to give away copies of YA fiction titles The Outsiders 50th Anniversary Edition and Kids of Appetite to 5 lucky readers. Entries are limited to the United States. Only one entry per person. Contest ends at 11:59 p.m. CST on May 2, 2017. Winners will be randomly selected. Good luck!
(Please note: we are only able to ship books to a school address.)