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Artist and illustrator Charlie Mackesy drew a picture of a boy talking to a horse as a way of expressing his own feelings after the death of a close friend and a conversation with another friend about the nature of courage and bravery. The Horse confesses that the bravest thing he has ever said is to have the courage to ask for “Help”.

Mackesy recalls: “I put that up on Instagram and forgot about it, and the next thing I knew was that hospitals and institutions had been using it, and the army had been using it for PTSD, it went crazy.”

An editor at Ebury Press discovered his pictures when he had already amassed 30,000 Instagram followers, met him at an exhibition of his illustrations and suggested he devise the narrative thread that became this extraordinary book. The initial print-run was 10,000 copies but the tale has captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of readers across the world.

In his introduction, Mackesy says “The Boy is lonely when they Mole first surfaces. They spend time together gazing into the wild. I think the wild is a bit like life – frightening sometimes and beautiful.

…. They (the characters) are all different, like us, and each has his own weaknesses. I can see myself in all four of them, perhaps you can too.”

Mackesy takes the reader on a journey with his four protagonists through an unpredictable springtime landscape. His characters have conversations about love, self-worth and cake, while they have adventures and fun together. The narrative is subsidiary to the illustrations and the book can easily be read in a single sitting.

Mackesy, originally from Northumberland, was a cartoonist for The Spectator and an illustrator for Oxford University Press, he draws his characters mainly in pen, ink and watercolour, occasionally using other media. The illustrations have a timeless quality that recalls E. H. Shepard’s drawings for ‘Winnie The Pooh’, Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and the work of another excellent cartoonist and illustrator, Edward Ardizzone. Many of the illustrations carry the story forward with no commentary at all, the inside covers show them all dancing over piano sheet music. It is the originality and gentle humour of the illustrations and the clear definition of the characters as they travel together that make the story a universal guide to surmounting difficulties. The meaning of friendship, love and compassion is explored with an honesty that prevents it from becoming a series of trite or sentimental clichés and he promotes the under-valued virtue of kindness, kindness to others and, more importantly, kindness to ourselves. Implicit in the disparity of a Horse, Fox, Mole and Boy conversing together is the acceptance of our own completely different outlooks, experiences, beliefs and needs.

I came across the international best seller when my daughter asked for it for her 18th birthday, having been shown a copy by her artistic piano teacher. That is the beauty of ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.’ It has something to offer everyone at every stage of life. Read it to a child, give it to a friend in need of strength to face tough times or open it at random for reassurance that the world is a kinder place than we fear. During this time of disruption and apprehension the book offers security and comfort, as the horse assures his friends, “This storm will pass.”


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