The Exploding Experiment (The Adventures of the Flash Gang, 1)
by M.M. Downing & S.J. Waugh
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction / Historical
Print Length: 212 pages
Publisher: Fitzroy Books
Reviewed by Warren Maxwell
In this rollicking series debut, a group of children plunge into the gritty underworld of depression-era Pittsburgh.
The Adventures of the Flash Gang Episode One: Exploding Experiment is the gripping story of two young children who foil a vast international conspiracy. Packed with humor and action, it is a mystery that brings out the true power of friendship and community. Readers will fall in love with these charming characters and feel immersed in the world of Downing and Waugh.
“Lewis looked like what he was, what he had been for exactly one hundred and fourteen days: a streeter. And, except for his eyeglasses, he was as forgettable as any other streeter in the chilly March of 1935.”
Eleven-year old Lewis has a special explosive recipe his father left behind before he went inexplicably missing. Lewis uses the recipe to survive and stay out of the orphanages—stealing food when he needs to and giving what he has left over to soup kitchens. When he is kidnapped by a strange man intent on stealing the special recipe, Lewis meets Pearl Alice Clavell: a young heiress, adventure story enthusiast, and his unlikely savior.
Working together, Lewis and Pearl navigate the dangerous world of 1935 Pittsburgh by gathering a band of street kids together and unraveling the mystery of Lewis’s father, the recipe, and the criminals who are desperate to capture them.
“‘THIS ISN’T AN ADVENTURE, Pearl ALICE Clavell’ Lewis yelled with his last reserves of breath. ‘IT’S REAL LIFE’”
The underlying themes about community, acceptance, and friendship make this book far more than your average adventure story. Quiet, thoughtful, and reserved, Lewis is everything Pearl is not. She is brash, outspoken, eager for adventure, and full of a childish awe at the world. These contrasts and their shared charisma add a compelling tension to their relationship and animate the entire story. I loved watching as their early reservations about each other drop away and a deep, fruitful camaraderie blossoms. As different as they are, they learn to accept one another and forge a mutually affirming bond. The story of their friendship is almost as engrossing as the mystery itself.
“There was no room for any more excuses. He was completely mixed up in whatever this mess was, and his father was mixed up in it too. And his father was missing—which was no longer a pushed-aside worry, but a huge and all-consuming one.”
The book also excels at balancing thrilling action sequences with humor and deeply felt emotion. Lewis’s loneliness and longing for his father come across movingly, as does the compassion among the band of streeter kids. Downing and Waugh’s powerful descriptions and ear for dialogue bring a satisfying reality and substance to genre cliches—like the way Mac, a streeter kid, always blushes when Pearl speaks to him.
Young readers will be swept up in this whirlwind of a story and long to join the Flash Gang too. This is a fun read with an inspiring message about how a community can come together to be courageous and surmount enormous obstacles. The relatable characters, gripping mystery, and rich historical locale make it quite the series debut and an excellent gateway for kids curious to learn about life in depression-era America.
Thank you for reading Warren Maxwell’s book review of The Exploding Experiment by M.M. Downing & S.J. Waugh! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.