I've been making steady progress through the other Mark Twain Award nominees by reading during my lunch break and in the evenings. Super nice thing about most juvenile literature: it's got all the interest of great fiction with a shorter reading time. This next batch of four novels offers a variety of moods, styles, and appeal factors, so there's sure to be one that appeals to even a tough-to-please young reader.
Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry -- The protagonist, called Brother because of his having four older brothers, lives on a working ranch in rural Oregon where military service is a fundamental part of the largely Catholic ranching community. When Brother's father and his Army Reserves unit are deployed to Iraq, Brother suddenly finds himself alone on the ranch with his aging grandparents. Though he's only twelve, Brother earnestly takes it upon himself to ensure everything will be in working order at home for his father when his tour is over. During the course of those long fourteen months, Brother learns about how family, neighbors, and faith can make a vital difference in how one survives difficult times.
The Potato Chip Puzzles: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin -- Middle schooler Winston loves puzzles. He loves them so much, in fact, that after he helps his school decipher a mysterious letter that turns out to be an invitation to a puzzle tournament, he volunteers himself and his closest friends for the event despite its taking place on the first day of summer vacation. The event pits ten middle school teams against one another as they try to solve six consecutive puzzles with clues all around town, but Winston quickly realizes that more gears are in motion than the planned contest. Can Winston solve the potato chip puzzles and the case of a cheater in the competition's midst?
11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass -- Amanda is about to turn eleven, and for the first time in her life, she won't be celebrating her birthday with Leo, who was always her best friend. During last year's joint party, Amanda overheard Leo saying some things that she just could not forgive, and so the pair are celebrating separately. Imagine Amanda's surprise when she wakes up the day after turning eleven only to discover that she is reliving that birthday again. Amanda tinkers with her actions and choices every time she relives her birthday, and in the process she discovers what it means to help others, to recognize who she is and be herself, and to be a true friend.
Runaway Twin by Peg Kehret -- Sunny has seen the unsavory sides of the foster care system over the last few years. After her mother and grandmother died when she and her twin sister Starr were three, Starr went to live with one family while Sunny went first to relatives and then, abandoned, into the system. Despite finally finding herself in a stable foster home with a woman who cares about her, Sunny decides to runaway in pursuit of Starr. Throughout this event-heavy first person narrative, Sunny braves a great many things--a tornado, traveling alone, unkind children--in her pursuit of no longer feeling alone in the world.