Stay gold, Ponyboy

This week I stayed with a friend’s daughter while she started her first day of high school and her parents dropped her brother off at college. I had a wonderful time as acting auntie, a role I don’t get to play very often. We also have a lot in common which means we chatted and laughed about nearly everything.

She is voracious reader and her room is stacked with evidence of the latest Young Adult fiction boom. Arranged in thick trilogies, she moved from series to series explaining what, and more importantly, who, she liked and didn’t. Strong characters, a little supernatural twist, lots of action, a not-always-happy ending – she explained what made a good read amid all the options and what was “boring.” I listened attentively and poked around at the same time. She understood. It is very hard for people who love books to keep from picking up them up and reading the inside flap and running their fingers across the pages compulsively. I was in Hunger Games heaven.

Then I saw a slim paperback tucked on a bottom shelf and I recognized it before I saw the title. I knew the size, the length, the shape of letters on the spine. I reached down and slid out a memory that looked and felt new. I held it up. “Do you like this book?” I asked. She smiled broadly. “Oh yes!” she said, “I love it.” I had one of those moments when you are reminded that the world occasionally has order and meaning. “Me too,” I said.

I was also a crazy reader at her age. I read everything – children’s books, grown up books, classics, sci-fi, comics, religious text, biographies – there were themes, but basically if it had words, I checked it out of the library. In all those books, I remember exactly what it was like to read The Outsiders for the first time. It had such typical ingredients – a world without adults, would-he-escape action scenes, melodramatic heroes and anti-heroes, budding romance, impossible moral dilemmas, even a cathartic narration via the “What I did last summer” school paper. Even as a kid I knew this wasn’t the literary level of A Separate Peace or Catcher in the Rye. But it felt adolescent in a way that other great coming of age stories didn’t. Ponyboy’s voice was a true fourteen year old voice and as I read and reread from my awkward, middle class, suburban world, it was my voice. The Outsiders wasn’t a boy book or girl book or a book written by an adult looking back. It was one of the first books I remember that seemed to know exactly how I was feeling.

We talked about it for a few more minutes. We both like Ponyboy best. I started to mention how cool it was that when I read this book it had already been published ten years and now she is reading it over thirty years after me and isn’t that the sign of a really great story . . . and I lost her. The power of The Outsiders Is the immediacy, the eternal present tense of the teenage experience. It is not about the when, it is about the why, and the what, and the how of trying to find out where you belong, knowing your friends are really the only ones who get you. I put the book down and changed the subject. She brightened and we began talking about her school and friends. I was happy to listen, trying to focus as my mind drifted toward a rumble, a flight and Johnny’s last words, “Stay gold, Ponyboy . . .”   



4 responses to “Stay gold, Ponyboy”

  1. Dave says:

    I think you’re onto something about young-adult fiction having its power in its immediacy, its relatively unselfconscious reflection of the teenage experience. (I haven’t read The Outsiders, but I’m thinking of a lot of the other stuff I read when I was a teenager.)

    Maybe that’s what adults are looking for in the current “Young Adult fiction boom”? A certain kind of escapism — not escape the way a big action movie or a romantic comedy offers escape, but an escape into a solipsism that is a familiar part of everyone’s past?

  2. T-Mo says:

    I loved this! Thanks, Pandora.

  3. Ivy says:

    Time and place as well: it was used in an English textbook I just edited, for the NZ market.

  4. swells says:

    We have friends who named their baby girl Pony, and she’s got “Stay Gold, Ponygirl” painted across the wall above her crib. I think not only Ponyboy’s character but the magical cadence of that word has incredible resonance–glad to know the kids are still listening!