A web designer and aspiring children's author, whose debut novel was turned down by 100 literary agents and publishers prior to being picked up by Andersen Press, was yesterday rewarded for his persistence when he was named winner of the Costa Children's Book Award.
Jason Wallace, 41, from London, beat the best-selling writer Jonathan Stroud to the prize for Out of Shadows, an inventive tale about Robert Mugabe's newly independent Zimbabwe in the 1980s. The power struggle between white and black Zimbabweans of that era is shown through the eyes of a schoolboy.
"I think I may have had a few low points when trying to get the book noticed, but in truth I don't think I would ever have given in," he told The Independent yesterday. He was born in Cheltenham but found himself in Africa at the age of 12 after his mother remarried and emigrated to Zimbabwe. The writer said his experience of growing up in the aftermath of the war of independence formed the foundation of his book.
He said: "This idea came that would allow me to write about something that means so much to me – from the sadness at seeing what Mugabe was doing to a country I loved, to simply reliving my teenage years as I wrote."
Among the Costa Prize's other category winners was Maggie O'Farrell who was recognised for her fifth novel, The Hand That First Held Mine. The novelist, a former journalist with The Independent on Sunday, dramatises the disorientating experiences of mothers in the first few weeks after childbirth. "It is a shock to the system when there's no sleep and you're physically debilitated," she said. "It's like being in a dream state."
Edmund de Waal, 46, the celebrated ceramicist whose memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, won the Costa Biography Award, said he was "punch drunk" on hearing the news. The book traces his family tree.
Jo Shapcott, meanwhile, won the poetry category award for Of Mutability, her first new work in over a decade, which was in part influenced by her experience of breast cancer. Kishwar Desai claimed the first novel award for Witness the Night.
An overall winner across the five categories will be announced on 25 January.
Costa Novel Award
The Hand That First Held Mine, by Maggie O'Farrell
A London couple recover from a traumatic birth unravelling the secrets and repressed memories which intertwine their lives with strangers' from the 1950s.
Costa First Novel Award
Witness the Night, by Kishwar Desai
When an unconventional social worker in India is drawn into the case of a mute young girl accused of murder, she discovers the terrible fate of unwanted female children.
Costa Biography Award
The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal
This rich memoir chronicles not just the highly acclaimed potter's own story, but also that of his remarkable family, through the passing-down of a collection of intricate Japanese carvings.
Costa Poetry Award
Of Mutability, by Jo Shapcott
Influenced by the poet's experience of breast cancer, this collection of poems celebrates life and hope by exploring mortality and the nature of change with unflinching candour.
Costa Children's Book Award
Out of Shadows, by Jason Wallace
Inspired by the author's experience in Zimbabwe, this novel brings the simmering rage of the early Mugabe regime to the page for young adults.