By David R. Altman
“It’s a small graphic novel about images and conversation.”
That’s how British illustrator Charlie Mackesy describes his remarkable book entitled The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.
Mackesy’s description does not do justice to his book. Not by a long shot.
Not only was it the Barnes and Noble Book of the Year, it was number one in its category on the New York Times bestseller list.
If you have read this unforgettable book, you will know what I mean when I tell you it nearly defies description—and you can’t really categorize it (which obviously was why it was put in the “Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous” category by the Times).
You could call it a children’s book, because of the simplicity of both the language and the images (they are mostly black and white sketches, with a few in color). You could also call it a young adult book, as the questions the young boy asks are ones that every young person will seek to answer. Perhaps most of all, you could call this a book with very adult themes, among them loneliness, friendship, love and, perhaps most of all, kindness.
You will learn things from this book that you already knew, but given the darkness that has gripped so much of lives in the last year, you will learn them again. The storyline is simple—the images and dialogue powerful.
The story begins with a young boy named Charlie, who meets a mole, a fox and a horse along an unusual journey.
After Charlie and the animals come together, the boy asks “What do we do when our heart’s hurt?”
The horse replies, “We wrap them with friendship, shared tears and time, till they wake hopeful and happy again.”
Earlier, the mole asked the boy, “Is your glass half empty or half full?”
The boy answered “I think I’m grateful to have a glass.”
The images in this book are mesmerizing. They are drawn by Mackesy, a 59-year-old British artist equipped with both the gift of language and of thought.
Some might read this and think of it as a book about leadership. I once gave copies of Dr. Seuss’s book Oh the Places You’ll Go to my colleagues. If you haven’t read that one, you should. It’s a child’s book with very adult themes.
There was another book, back in the early nineties, called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Steven Covey. It was sort of a way to talk about how relationships can drive not just success, but happiness. The one I remember the most is “…seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Covey, an educator and businessman who passed away in 2012, not only coached about everything from parenting to leadership, he knew how kindness and friendship contributed to success and happiness. These are themes that are consistent in The Boy, the Fox, the Mole and the Horse (I know it’s a long title, but once you read it you will feel guilty if you try abbreviating it by just its initials TBTMTFATH).
You may also see similarities between this book and two other classics, the unforgettable tale of The Velveteen Rabbit and the lasting lessons in The Polar Express.
One critic even compared The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse to A. A. Milne’s 1926 collection Winnie the Pooh (Winnie was named after a teddy bear owned by the author’s son, Christopher Robin Milne). The common-sense wisdom of Pooh and his loving friendships are very much like those formed by Charlie and his animals.
Mackesy, who dropped out of college and was later hired as an illustrator at Oxford University Press, now exhibits his drawings around the world and is involved in a number of charitable efforts. His work is displayed in women’s safe houses as well as in hospitals and prisons. He also was a major contributor to “The Unity Series”, a set of lithographs honoring Nelson Mandela in 2006.
Like Seuss and Covey, Mackesy has contributed a book (a work of art, actually) that will remain in the consciousness of anyone who reads it.
I found myself returning again and again to re-read the dialogue and stare at the drawings that bring this book to life.
The book is not inexpensive, with hard copies going from $17.99 to nearly $30, depending on which edition you buy and where you buy it.
But it is not the cost of the book that you will remember—it is the profound simplicity of the story, reminding us about those things in life which, regardless of our age, should be most important to us.
When young Charlie asks the horse “Do you have any other advice,” The horse replies “Always remember you matter, you’re important and you are loved and you bring to this world things no one else can.”
If you want to give a lasting gift to a child—or to anyone that you love—this is the one.