Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Reader Confessions: I Love (and still read) S.E. Hinton

You know those books that are a kind of cultural touchstone for young adults - those books it seems like everyone was either forced to read or found on their own? One of the prime examples of this kind of book is S.E. Hinton's famous young adult novel, The Outsiders. Although Hinton wrote it while still a teenager in the 1960s, it has managed to stay relevant and on reading lists for 12-14 year olds across the country. I was never assigned The Outsiders in school, but I read the book on my own in middle school and really liked it. Even as an adolescent, I realized it was a little emotionally manipulative and heavy-handed, but that didn't keep me from crying through the end and unintentionally falling in love with some of the characters (particularly moody and hyper-responsible big brother, Darry Curtis). I quickly devoured Hinton's other four young adult novels and found myself enjoying them as well.

Then a curious thing happened. I grew up, reread the books as an "adult," and realized I still liked them. Maybe even loved them. Now that I'm older (and hopefully wiser) and have seen examples of good and bad writing in every genre for every age, I can honestly say that Hinton's writing impresses me. The style is straightforward, and her first-person narration is handled very deftly, with protagonists seeing everything in a personal, distorted light, forming prejudices or attachments in places we readers might find trouble. Most of all, I am always surprised by the kind of "big ideas" Hinton tackles. Sure, coming of age stories are a dime a dozen. And sure, at least half of them involve death or injury in some way. But Hinton is much more interested in both the value and the tragedy of human relationships. Whether between friends, or romantic interests, or family members, her characters' relationships are always prickly and honest. Forget the death-shines-light-on-truth of The Outsiders. I'm talking about Hinton's later work, where the dissolution of a friendship is twice as heartbreaking and realistic as any death.

My favorite book by Hinton, and one that I return to every couple years because I love the characters so much, is Tex. The title character makes an amusing and heartbreaking narrator, and his relationships with his best friend, his possible girlfriend, his "father", and his older brother are extremely touching and true. It's Tex's relationship with his control-freak, stressed-out brother, Mason, that really gives the book it's heart. (Here, I will admit that I always loved Mason, much for the same reason I loved Darry in The Outsiders - because he's a protective older brother who has a hard time dealing with emotion. Let's just say I have a type.) The eventual reconciliation between the brothers reads wonderfully because it's full of imperfections, things unsaid, and promises that might get broken in the future. And that's why I love S.E. Hinton's work: Because she's not afraid to tear giant holes between her characters and force them to realize that even if you sew that hole back up, it's never going to be as seamless again. People and circumstances change, and all we can do is try to deal with those changes the best we can. It's a lesson everyone, not just teenagers, might need to be reminded of every once in awhile.

So why am I bringing S.E. Hinton up now? Because I am worried about the state of young adult literature. A fellow reader of mine recently blogged about her fear over the state of teenage readers in regards to the romantic obsessions of Twilight and its fans. I agree wholeheartedly with her that although it's nice to see teenagers reading, it's disheartening to know that that reading is largely concerned with overly-idealistic romantic entanglements and supernatural creatures, neither of which will probably be encountered in later life and literature. I understand the need for escapist reading - I read Nora Roberts and Stephen King like everyone else - but what happened to the hyper-realism of young adult novelists like Hinton? I know I sound like a crazy old person yelling for the kid to get off my lawn, but I'm worried. Because books like Twilight present relationships without complexity and create weak female characters that do little but act as stand-ins for the readers. (Another trait I like about Hinton: her female characters are usually as angry and troubled and willing to sever ties as their male counterparts). Reading about vampires for fun is fine. But when that's all you're reading, it's worrisome to literary snobs like myself. Because I worry the future is full of girls growing up to believe in idealistic and super-pure love, and that's just leading to disappointment for everyone. Take it from Hinton: people and their connections to each other can suck sometimes, and you have to be able to deal with that truth.

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