“The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” by Charlie Mackesy (HarperOne, 128 pages, $22.99).
It began on Instagram. About two years ago, Charlie Mackesy, an artist in South London, began posting pen-and-ink drawings about a little boy and his animal friends. One of their earliest appearances, in January 2018, was a simple depiction of the child and a mole sitting together, each wrapped in a blanket, looking into each other’s eyes. “Tales from the underground. Another mole day I think,” read the caption. The love began pouring in: One commenter likened the image to Beatrix Potter; another said, “This is a book emerging, Charlie.”
In October 2019, the book emerged. “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” is a collection of loosely linked illustrations about a lonely boy who ambles through the countryside on a spring day, finding companionship: first meeting the mole, then the other animals of the title. As they walk, the new friends talk, wonder, share their hopes and fears and pose some big questions: “What do we do when our hearts hurt?” “Home isn’t always a place, is it?”
The fox is generally silent; the mole and the horse offer reassurance and wisdom: “Often the hardest person to forgive is yourself,” says the mole at one point.
Mackesy describes the book as “a small graphic novel of images with conversation, over landscape.” Reminiscent of “The Tao of Pooh” and “The Giving Tree,” it’s a sweet tale rendered in swirly black calligraphy and, here and there, strokes of watercolor. Childlike in its simplicity, its messages are universal; it’s a book that, as one commenter put it, “pairs well with Kleenex and a pad of paper.”
It’s also a big hit. “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” has sold more than 250,000 copies in the United States. It’s appeared on multiple bestseller lists, was named book of the year by British book retailer Waterstones and Barnes & Noble and is being translated into 17 languages.
Mackesy, as humble as his characters, is pleasantly surprised by this turn of events. “Oddly, I had no agenda with the drawings,” he said by email. “They were just a way of saying what I felt about existence and what I thought was important.”
Mackesy’s first drawing for the book was inspired by an afternoon he spent with the son of a friend, who was climbing a tree and full of questions. The result appears on page five: The boy sits on a branch and asks the mole: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” the answer: “Kind.”
A former children’s book illustrator and cartoonist for the Spectator, Mackesy finds himself, by happenstance, to be a spokesman for uplift in down times.
Online, his followers — who include Elizabeth Gilbert and Julia Roberts — share not only their love of his drawings and epigrams but also their personal stories about illness, fear, worry and loss.
“I’ve been sharing your book with a special woman who is in hospice,” writes one reader. “She carries your drawings with her. Thank you for making some of her last days so touching and meaningful.”
The book has been read during yoga classes and generated requests for wall-prints and tattoos. Mackesy has also brought people together over world events. As fires raged in Australia this month, Mackesy posted a drawing of his four characters huddled together above the words, “We are with you.” (“Means a lot that you still remember us,” one Aussie commented.)
The image that has sparked the most response, however, is one in which the boy asks, “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” and the horse answers, “Help.” Therapists — even the British army — have asked to use the illustration, Mackesy said. “The idea of men particularly asking for help and it being a brave thing was something they wanted to promote,” he said.
Mackesy himself asked for help. “Who on earth am I to be doing this?” he asks in the early pages of the book. The horse has some advice for him (and us): “The truth is everyone is winging it.” Mackesy relied on his online followers for assistance in developing his narrative. “It’s a product of all of us,” he wrote on Instagram when the book first became a best-seller.
The book also grapples with its own fate. Early on, the boy asks the mole, “What do you think success is?” The reply: “To love.”
Has the actual success of the book changed that answer? Mackesy says it has not. “The success of the book for me lies not in the sales but in the loving response I’ve received from so many. It’s emphasized for me the truth of that answer.”