Farnborough student wins prestigious history prize

A literary career beckons for student Imogen Usherwood following her win in the 15-18 age group of the Chalke Valley History Prize

The Chalke Valley History Prize is a historical fiction writing competition, which is sponsored by Penguin Books and the Daily Mail. Students are asked to write the first chapter (up to 1,500 words) of a historical novel. They are also required to write a 500 word synopsis of their proposed book. The competition prize consists of £500, £100 of Penguin Books, £500 for the winner’s school and a one-to-one session with a senior publisher at Penguin Books. Among the judges this year were internationally best-selling author Sebastian Faulks, acclaimed actor Haydn Gwynne, best-selling and award-winning biographer Claire Tomalin, and comedian and best-selling novelist Charlie Higson. 

The first chapter of Imogen’s novel 300 Seconds, 300 Days chronicles a Jewish family en route from the Krakow Ghetto to the Sobibor extermination camp, oblivious to their fate. Her book would then see the key protagonist, Elsa, return as a ghost, watching over her family, as they live through the terror of their situation.

Once Imogen’s entry was shortlisted for the prize, she was given a free family pass to attend the Chalke Valley Festival.  She describes the experience: “The entries to the competition were read out in turn by John Sessions, Haydn Gwynn and Charlie Higson, and mine was the last but one. They were all of a remarkably high standard. I was really impressed with them all, and was ready to settle for being a runner-up, but hearing John Sessions read something I recognised as my own work felt incredible. As soon as I heard my name announced as the winner, my eyes started to water; I couldn’t believe that something I had written in my spare time had been so well received. I was then reminded of the fantastic prizes I’d just won – not only such a generous cash prize, but moreover a meeting at Penguin’s head office in London. I made my way onto the stage, where Sebastian Faulks was waiting to congratulate me. At the end, the entrants all gathered round a table to chat with Charlie Higson and a senior publisher; I loved being in the company of so many gifted young people who all shared the same interests, and finding out what inspired them to write their historical fiction. I had such a wonderful day, and I met so many talented people. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to pursue 300 Seconds, 300 Days further with Penguin.” 

One of the judges, Alex Clarke, publisher of Penguin Books, commented: “This year’s entries were fantastic. The writing is full of wit and acutely observed, with bold, engaging characters and refreshingly original plotlines. We’re looking forward to seeing how these exciting new voices develop, influence and shape historical fiction over the coming years.’  Festival co-chair, James Holland, described the prize as ‘a fabulous opportunity for aspiring writers.”

Imogen’s history teacher at Farnborough Hill, Mr Phil Gillingham, who encouraged her to enter the competition, said: “This is a truly exceptional achievement. To even be short-listed for the award is a tremendous success. To win the 15-18 category, aged 15, is an extraordinary feat and one Imogen will never forget.” 


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