Henry Gregor Felsen Essay - Critical Essays

Felsen, Henry Gregor


Henry Gregor Felsen 1916–

(Has also written as Gregor Felsen and under pseudonym Angus Vicker) American young adult novelist, nonfiction writer, scriptwriter, and journalist.

Felsen was among the first authors who wrote specifically for young people to invest his titles with the realism and emotional depth of adult literature. He dealt with subjects previously considered taboo for a young adult audience, such as war, death, and sexuality, and treated them without didacticism or sentimentality. His characters and their situations were also atypical. Several of his protagonists were anti-heroes and their adventures did not always end happily. His unconventional Hot Rod has been called one of the most important initial young adult novels, and it spawned a whole genre of similar works during the 1950s. His body of work reflects a writer with a strongly adult viewpoint who still understands and is sympathetic towards the feelings and experiences of teenagers.

Struggle Is Our Brother, Felsen's second novel, was universally praised for being not only an excellent adventure story, but also for the realistic and honest way it presented the facts of war to its audience. Many of Felsen's early novels had a military background, and he used all the major branches of the service as subjects. These books are characterized by well-rounded protagonists and authentic detail.

With his popular Bertie series, Felsen began including social implications in his novels. Bertie, the fat boy who makes good by personality and determination, was a strong character but some critics found him too perfect. However, the books about his escapades were usually praised for their humor and perceptiveness.

Felsen is best known for his novels about teenagers caught up in situations that lead them closer to adulthood. His series of car stories, which were written as a reaction to a rash of teenage traffic fatalities, present young readers with identifiable characters and backgrounds as they depict the tragedies that often result from vehicle misuse and carelessness. Some critics were shocked by the baldness of Felsen's descriptions, but they recognized the worth of the books in making young people more aware of the consequences of their actions.

Two and the Town provoked an equally strong reaction from parents and librarians in its frank treatment of teenage pregnancy and forced marriage. The novel has since been recognized as one of the best of the early realistic novels for young people, and its sensitivity and insight into this delicate problem has withstood the initial furor that accompanied its publication.

Felsen has been criticized for his occasionally weak backgrounds and characterizations, and for turning his novels into sermons or tracts. His latest works, nonfiction books of advice, have received special notice for their overly preachy style. Felsen's works may appear somewhat dated today, but the values that underscore them and the concern for young people that comes through keep these titles relevant and meaningful for contemporary audiences. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 1.)

May Lamberton Becker

We've come a long way from gentlemanly wars and the polite romances by which they were represented to young folk in fiction. There are no lace ruffles in Russia today, and if a story of the resistance of young folk of the Soviets to the earlier stages of German invasion of the Ukraine is to be told today to American young folk who read the papers, it will have to give them as much of the truth as a twelve-year-old can take in, and that will involve murder, sudden death and battle of a desperately glorious ferocity….

Under these conditions Mr. Felsen's ["Struggle Is Our Brother"] keeps on the young side of the line—now as irregular as a rail fence—between juvenile and adult fiction. Taking for granted that twelve-year-olds can stand a great deal, it gives them straight action, leaving to their elders psychological reactions and psychic abnormalities with which the adult war novel can, and does, deal. This action, involving boys and girls with older patriots, turns on the fate of a huge dam, pride and hope of the region, and on the dread necessity of destroying it rather than leaving it to the invader…. [Heroism] is taken for granted among [all the characters], and in them all is a spirit that will strike fire in any young heart.

May Lamberton Becker, "Books for Young People: 'Struggle Is Our Brother'," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), Vol. 19, No. 26, February 21, 1943, p. 7.

Ellen Lewis Buell

Here in this book ["Struggle Is Our Brother"], the first we have had for young people about beleaguered Russia, is made plain the spirit and the will which have turned back the tide of war against the aggressors. It is the story of a young Cossack, not too concerned with ideology,… who was orphaned and made homeless by one of the first German bombs….

His story doesn't approach literature in the permanent sense, but it presents in individual terms the stark, indomitable courage in that heroic struggle to save civilization, and for that may well be read by every young American.

Ellen Lewis Buell, "New Books for Younger Readers: 'Struggle Is Our Brother'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1943 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 21, 1943, p. 12.

Alice M. Jordan

[Struggle is Our Brother is a] tense exciting story. This is war in its stark reality, no trace of the glamour that used to surround stories of battles…. Sincerity and lifelike characters make this a very real picture of the Cossacks, who have called out the admiration of the world. It is a gripping story, demonstrating the meaning of love of country.

Alice M. Jordan, "The Booklist: 'Struggle Is Our Brother'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyrighted, 1943, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XIX, No. 2, March, 1943, p. 104.

Three or four movies could be made, and probably have been, from the material in [Submarine Sailor], in which, on an eleven-week operational cruise, practically everything that can happen to a submarine in the Pacific does happen, along with a few things the reader might be excused for supposing improbable. The strenuous events, however, merely provide scope for demonstrating the capabilities of an American submarine when she struts her stuff, a display that Navy-minded boys will appreciate.

"Books: 'Submarine Sailor'," in The New Yorker (© 1943 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XIX, No. 42, December 4, 1943, p. 135.

[Some Follow the Sea is a] might-be-true story of Chris who joined the merchant marine, when he was turned down by the Navy, and of his adventures crossing, first to Scotland, then to Murmansk, then back to England—each time with a torpedoing en route. The distinguishing thing about this book is that Chris isn't all hero…. A most unglorified picture of life on a merchant ship, written by someone who knows where of he writes.

"Fiction: 'Some Follow the Sea'," in Virginia Kirkus' Bookshop Service, Vol. XII, No. 4, February 15, 1944, p. 97.

Frances C. Darling

"Some Follow the Sea" … is a stirring tribute to the men of the Merchant Marine. As in his earlier books, "Submarine Sailor" and "Navy Diver," Mr. Felsen has carefully checked the authenticity of his material and much interesting detail is woven into the story….

Realistic, grim, very much more than just a thrilling adventure story, "Some Follow the Sea" follows the fortunes of 17-year-old Chris Hollister when he shipped out on an old freighter headed in convoy for England…. Mr. Felsen rightly reminds us how many and how sudden are the dangers which young lads must meet who have joined the Merchant Marine and have no months of training in camp in which the mental approach of the civilian is lost and that of the fighter gained. The effect on Chris and the story of his regaining courage is very finely done.

Frances C. Darling, "America in Action," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1944 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), July 27, 1944, p. 14.


The story of the reporter for a Marine publication who falls into the hands of the Japanese and is saved by the atomic bomb [Flying Correspondent] is wildly exciting, and probably not a bit more implausible than the things that really happened. We particularly enjoyed the dialogue, which was amusing and natural, and a great improvement on the heroics to which we were accustomed when the Boy Allies were at Liége.

Jane Cobb and Helen Dore Boylston, "Life & Letters: 'Flying Correspondent'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1947, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 179, No. 5, May, 1947, p. 130.


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Florence W. Butler

Bertie [in Bertie Takes Care] who spends his summer as activity leader of a group of under-privileged boys is a mixture of child and adult, of selfishness and good sportsmanship, that adults may find a little incredible. Younger junior high school boys particularly will take to this story though, as readily as they did to Bertie Comes Through. There are worthy social and race implications in the group's feeling of oneness…. Recommended. (pp. 1284-85)

Florence W. Butler, "New Books Appraised: 'Bertie Takes Care'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, September 15, 1948; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1948...

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Margaret C. Scoggin

So rarely is a fat boy the hero of a story that it is good to welcome back Bertie Poddle [in "Bertie Takes Care"]….

Perhaps the slapstick quality of some episodes and the serious intent of some others are not completely fused, but Bertie's admirers will take the fun and the seriousness together and unconsciously absorb some idea of how it feels to be a fat boy.

Margaret C. Scoggin, "Books for Young People: 'Bertie Takes Care'," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), Vol. 25, No. 12, November 7, 1948, p. 12.

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F. C. Smith

In two earlier books Mr. Felsen has presented the activities of Bertie Poddle, fat boy. In general, Bertie's problems are those of any 15-year-old boy. That he is fat simply accentuates them. He wants to be liked, especially by his girl friend. He wants to win a spectacular place in the backfield, not an obscure one in the line….

[In "Bertie Makes a Break"] Bertie wants money to match the sizable bank accounts his best friends earned at summer camp. He becomes an unwitting party to a swindle, but later helps to trick Mr. Sleemish, the perpetrator, at his own game. But the most important thing Bertie does is to grow up…. Except for an occasional lapse into caricature, all is done with appealing...

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[The third Bertie book, Bertie Makes a Break, is] as good as the first, better than the second. Bertie is now feeling the pinch of poverty. He goes into business with slippery Mr. Sleemish, who skips town, leaving Bertie to bear the reproaches of his fellow citizens. But, as always, Bertie gets a second chance, nabs the swindler, squares himself with the town. Fast and funny. Recommended.

Ruth M. McEvoy, "New Books Appraised: 'Bertie Makes a Break'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, January 15, 1950; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1950 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 75, No. 2, January 15, 1950, p. 113....

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Howard Pease

Shocking and tragic yet true to fact, this story about teenage drivers ["Hot Rod"] is certain to rouse wide interest. Bud Crayne, a hot-rod enthusiast, owned a souped-up car that could race a hundred miles an hour and elude pursuing cops. Bud laughed at danger, and so did his girl friend, LaVerne…. When a younger boy tried to ape Bud's method of driving and lost his life, Bud for the first time began to question his own attitude toward the law.

Bud and LaVerne are real teen-agers. Their story is packed with action and suspense. One of the best things in the book is this boy-girl relationship, which Mr. Felsen handles with frankness and good taste.

One teen-age driver who read this...

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Ralph Adams Brown

[Davey Logan, Interne] is the story of a tough, stubborn farm boy who on the night that his mother died for lack of a doctor determined to be one…. Above all, it is the story of his interneship and a chain of unusual and dramatic circumstances that led to his return to practise medicine in the country village near his boyhood farm.

Mr. Felsen's book is not labeled "vocational fiction," but it does give the reader a good deal of insight into the training and problems of a young doctor. More often, it describes the struggle over values that is so often faced by young people in any vocation.

Ralph Adams Brown, "Books for Young People: 'Davey Logan,...

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Louise S. Bechtel

The events [described in "Two and the Town"] are related without sentimentality and with none of the touches which would bar such a story from the most careful library shelves….

[It] probably will cause plenty of discussion. It is not a novel, but a junior novel for boys that is almost a tract on a subject many adolescents think about a greal deal. One wide area in that thinking is omitted, purposely, though it is hinted at in the sophisticated girl whom Buff liked best before his accidental tragedy. In other words, Buff and Elaine are too naïve to appeal to those who need such a sermon most.

Louise S. Bechtel, "Books for Boys and Girls: 'Two and the Town',"...

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Learned T. Bulman

Many libraries will not buy [Two and the Town], and others will treat it with kid gloves, but we need it. Factual pamphlets and books treating sex miss the emotions of error and repair that this book, written for and about youth, presents. Felsen has been bold—some may say not bold enough. He has belabored the job of presenting each character, yet only through introspection can such a story be told. The boy, his over-indulgent parents, the girl, her super-restrictive parents, the incident itself, and the minister whose council is sought are drawn with firmness and clarity, but in a clean tone free of coarseness. If this book will help to warn, prepare, explain to, or prevent teen-agers from treating too...

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Ellen Lewis Buell

A writer who is deeply concerned with the thornier problems of teen-agers, Henry Gregor Felsen follows up his "Hot Rod" published three years ago with another story of the young buckos of the road ["Street Rod"]. Like the earlier story this is almost as much tract as fiction. Mr. Felsen is not a subtle writer, but he does make us understand the urge for speed and power which sends Ricky Maitland and thousands like him careening down the highways in their souped-up bombs….

The end of his story breaks all the conventions of the junior novel in its uncompromising tragedy. Plausible as a headline, this still seems out of key with the note of hope which Mr. Felsen offers in his argument for the timing...

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Louise S. Bechtel

Adults often find it hard to understand or to deal with, the teen-age boys who go off the deep end about rebuilt, "hopped-up" cars, which sometimes bring them to their death. As in his widely read "Hot Rod," Mr. Felsen tries to present both points of view in an exciting story ["Street Rod"]. It includes a lot of information, especially for adults new to the subject….

Concentrating on the adolescent emotions and ambition (to be a car designer) of a sixteen-year-old, the story shows vividly the compelling power of gang action, a boy's frustration if not part of a gang and his longing to be its leader. The boys of the street-rod gang in the sleepy town of Dellville defy the law in near-by towns and...

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Alice N. Hungerford

Mr. Felsen's ["Street Rod"] lays a burden on the reviewer to communicate its worth to children, parents, and to groups concerned with the car as a potentially fatal weapon when placed at the disposal of a teen ager. [Felsen's skill] makes a vital story, not a tract….

His description of the point at which a town which amply nourished their childhood becomes dead to a group of boys turning 16 is superlative writing. Accumulated boredom is taken out in the vicious driving which is the problem of the book. The author has various answers but is resolute enough to acknowledge that no device will restrain the latent desire to "show" their contemporaries that lies restlessly in all boys. To bring this...

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Learned T. Bulman

The automobile is a prestige symbol to the American teenager. A symbol that has coaches gnashing their teeth …, parents worried silly …, and law officers fearing who will next ride the city hearse. Henry Felsen, whose "Hot Rod" was the forerunner of this genre of book, and whose "Street Rod" should have helped to cure this national illness, has probably won the crown once and for all with this truly frightening book ["Crash Club"]. It should be required reading in every freshman classroom. It tries to explain what makes a boy drag, investigating the emotional and mental strains that make them rebel at being called chicken….

Although this book certainly deserves an award, the greatest reward we...

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Henry Gregor Felsen

A few months ago a young reader wrote to me: "Your story explained feelings that I have always felt, but was never able to put into words."

I think he put into words the most important function of the adult who writes for young people. That is, to help explain readers to themselves.

My average reader probably is 14 or 15 years old. At that age he has lived long enough to feel most of the emotions and participate in most of the experiences that life has to offer.

At that age he knows what it is to love and to hate. He has felt envy and compassion, jealousy and adoration. He has been vengeful and merciful, enjoyed freedom and struggled against restraint. He has been...

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Alice N. Hungerford

In ["Boy Gets Car"] Henry Felsen explores the difficulties that beset Woody Ahern, a 16 year old boy who longs to own a car. A car is the object of his desire not only as something to labor over and improve but as a symbol of independence and liberation from boyhood. Felsen has performed a careful and patient service to both boys and parents in revealing the intricate nature of the relationship between a boy, a car, and his status in the teen-age world.

Always an experienced and skillful writer, he has maintained a highly interesting story and at the same time built into it a wealth of careful detail about the rebuilding of old cars which cannot fail to command the attention and respect of his...

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Donna Haglin

Crash Club offers more possibilities [for the discussion of literary style] than most teenage novels. Felsen makes ample use of suggestion throughout the novel, rather than stating directly the impressions he wishes to convey (a common failing, in my opinion, of many "junior" novelists). For example, the reader is not told that Mike will walk again, or that Donna and Mike, although they will again find happiness, will always be influenced by the tragedy for which they were partially to blame; however, Felsen implies these outcomes with subtlety. He can also be commended for not indulging in the "and-they-lived-happily-ever-after" ending. Felsen makes frequent use of effective figurative language (especially...

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Robert N. Sheridan

Few sons will be fortunate enough to have a father who feels so keenly, understands so intuitively, and expresses himself with such sensitivity. Mr. Felsen's thoughts and advice [in To My Son in Uniform], will interest and help both the young men and the parents of sons who are in or about to go into the service. The author has consolidated the thoughts conveyed in his letters to his son from the time of his enlistment in the marines to his discharge four years later, and has presented them with great personal feeling and sentiment. He has fortunately avoided offensive moralizing and sentimentality. This is a thoughtful, sensitive book which could make acceptance of the military way of life easier by explaining...

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Robert M. Hilton

For some high school students, [A Teen-ager's First Car] will be one of the most important [books] they will ever read. Teen-agers who are still looking forward to acquiring their first car will find the honest presentation, disarming manner, and clear explanations to their liking and answering their needs. In his clever style. Mr. Felsen gives helpful analyses on sales for used cars, contracts, insurance, repairs, etc., as well as safety tips. Parents, too, will be interested readers.

Robert M. Hilton, "Junior High Up: 'A Teen-ager's First Car'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the January, 1967 issue of School...

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Emanuel Raff

[Three Plus Three] is about writing for films as told by the person who does it. Felsen talks directly to the student in a pleasant, conversational manner which is never condescending. "This is an invitation," he says, "to look over my shoulder while I work for a living." His observations are succinct and intriguing.

The design is simple. A short story is presented and problems in turning it into a script are discussed. The author then presents his script followed by questions which direct students to discover the reasons for differences between story and script. The discussions and the questions clarify the problems of translating from print to film. There are three short stories and three...

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Barbara Campbell

[In Living with Your First Motorcycle] Felsen offers nononsense, pragmatic advice for new motorcycle riders that drives home the importance of learning a responsible attitude at the outset. According to the author, the most difficult part of owning a bike is not its upkeep and endurance, but rather learning to live with the motorcycle's limitations (the automobile is still the king of the American road) as well as the rider's own. This is not primarily a how-to-ride nor a how-to-fix-it manual, although there are chapters on both. The book's strongest point is its emphasis on learning to ride the right way so as to ensure staying in one piece as well as enjoyable motorcycling. (pp. 132-33)


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K. Anthony Edwards

[The] message [in Can You Do It Until You Need Glasses? The Different Drug Book] is clear: "… writing a book telling people how to get off drugs is like mailing a drowning man a set of instructions on how to swim." Written in a "light," humorous vein, Can You Do It reads like a "Laugh-In" lecture designed to make students sit up and listen while laughing at their own or their friends' addiction. The book will have little effect on chronic or about-to-be users. Something else is needed. Some nutritionists, for example, have suggested that a predisposition to addiction can be countered by becoming healthy. This may be one solution, but a more obvious cure—requiring as much effort from the parents as...

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