I read and began to love this book when I was probably 9 or 10. I've read it many, many times since then. Ironically, since I grew up in Tulsa, I never knew that S.E. Hinton was a Tulsa native, nor that the events and characters in the book were drawn from her experiences as a teenager in my hometown.
It's a strongly written book, not the most beautiful writing in the world, but strong. As an adult reading the book, I shake my head in awe at the totally separate world that the teenagers occupy in the novel, as they always occupy in real life.
Hinton captures this teenage world so clearly, where there's no larger perspective. Everything is now, right now, do or die. I want to grab the characters (as I often wish I could do with teenagers) and shake their shoulders and remind them that there is life after high school. In that sense, the characters are perfectly drawn.
The conflicts between the rich and poor kids (Socs and Greasers) are gripping, especially for a young reader. This was a world I'd never (still haven't) experienced, so it was a wild ride for me.
It's an intense story, with a tragic end, which makes me wish that more kids would read it. Absorbing lives unlike our own through reading helps us cultivate empathy for other people.