Charlie Mackesy on The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse: ‘It’s humbling… The reaction was beyond anything I ever imagined’

Charlie Mackesy is the author and illustrator of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, the bestselling — and hugely poignant — book that celebrates kindness and understanding. He spoke to Katy Birchall about why there’s no shame in showing weakness and asking for help.

Charlie Mackesy insists he isn’t any good at small talk: ‘I’m useless. I like talking about things that really matter. I love conversation. That’s how all of this started — I was talking with a very good friend about courage. I began drawing that conversation and, from there, I let it unfold.’

The illustrator and author is referring to his bestselling book, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, which has become something of a phenomenon. It’s the touching tale of a curious boy and his journey with a cake-obsessed mole, a world-weary fox and a wise horse that is told through the conversations between these four unlikely companions, their adventures brought to life by the author’s own exquisite illustrations.

©Charlie Mackesy

Each turn of the page presents another scene framed by calligraphic messages of kindness, compassion and vulnerability; it’s a book which can be read cover-to-cover, but seems even more so to work as a dip-in-dip-out pick me up.

Published in October 2019, it has sold more than one million copies, becoming an invaluable source of comfort and positivity during a year like no other. Charlie’s art is pinned up in hospitals, schools and homes all over the world, his gentle words of profound wisdom providing reassurance and hope as life changed and we found ourselves grappling with the fear and anxiety of a pandemic.

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‘It’s a privilege that the book has helped others. I’m so pleased it speaks to people and gives courage,’ Charlie admits.

‘When I started these drawings, I was thinking a lot about what people really want in life; what we fear and why we fear it; what we hope for and what we dream of. Now and again, I would post a drawing on Instagram of a conversation surrounding all these things. The reaction was beyond anything I ever imagined.’

©Charlie Mackesy

The drawing that went viral on social media, sparking the stratospheric rise of Charlie’s four cherished characters and his consequent book, is one that lays bare our often misguided measures of courage and the strength it takes to reach out. The young boy sits astride the horse with the mole, the fox trotting along by their side, their conversation floating around the illustration in swirly black ink: ‘What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?’ asked the boy. ‘Help,’ said the horse.

Not long after posting it on Instagram, Charlie was receiving grateful emails from healthcare workers, teachers and therapists as far afield as Canada and Australia, telling him that the illustration was up on their walls. It became an effective tool for discussions around mental health, with the British Army using it to help soldiers suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder.

‘It formed from the idea of how I was at my strongest when I was showing weakness,’ he explains.

‘That was never really around when I was a boy. You had to be tough, armour-plated. But there are other ways of being strong. There is no shame in asking for help.

‘We don’t have to pretend. We’re all the same, really. I think real closeness comes from vulnerability and the book is a journey into closeness and honesty. It didn’t come about because I wanted to make a book. It came out of the characters’ conversations about what I felt really mattered.’

©Charlie Mackesy

Having resided in Brixton, London, for years, Charlie has recently spent several months on the Suffolk coast, growing accustomed to the quiet — ‘I’ve disappeared into rural existence. I can’t quite imagine London now’ — a lifestyle akin to his upbringing in Northumberland. Considering the serene landscapes depicted in his drawings, it is no surprise to hear that the countryside was a major influence on his work.

‘I wanted the images to give comfort and I think Nature is a very soothing environment. It seemed an uncluttered, relaxing context in which to put the characters,’ he says.

‘When I was younger, I spent most of my days wandering around fields and sitting on the hillside, gazing out and thinking.’

Even Country Life played a part: ‘I was brought up with the magazine,’ he adds fondly. ‘I remember looking at the pictures in it before I could read.’

©Charlie Mackesy

Growing up surrounded by farmland naturally instilled a deep love of and appreciation for wildlife, his admiration revealing itself in his art.

‘We trust them,’ he enthuses. ‘There’s an innocence and openness about animals. The creatures in the book aren’t preaching at anyone, they’re simply discussing things. I liked how that felt.’

There were horses on his family’s land and Mr Mackesy recalls often drawing them as a child. ‘We had a horse when I was little and my sister Sara is a brilliant rider. I draw them a lot and am fascinated by their strength and gentleness. The velvety nose of the horse; the way you can rest your head against it. I love their tenderness and their power. It’s an extraordinary paradox.’

©Charlie Mackesy

Together with a nod to his mother, the book is dedicated to his ‘wonderful dog, Dill’, a loyal companion who passed away last year.

‘She was an old labrador-collie cross — the most extraordinary dog and love of my life,’ he says. He still has Barney, a charming dachshund who, he admits, laughing, shares striking similarities with the mole: ‘Greedy, enthusiastic, with a pointy little nose.’

With a passion for the outdoors and scribbling cartoons from an early age, Mr Mackesy was educated at Radley College, Oxfordshire, and attempted university twice, but each time left early on.

He explains he started ‘really drawing’ when his best friend was tragically killed in a car crash at the age of 19.

‘We shared a house, we were young farmers. It suddenly propelled me into thinking about life. I picked up a pen, I began drawing and that was it. I couldn’t stop,’ he says. Starting out as a cartoonist for The Spectator and a book illustrator for Oxford University Press, he went on to exhibit in London, Edinburgh and New York.

©Charlie Mackesy

Charlie continues to be surprised by the overwhelming response to his book. ‘It’s very humbling,’ he concedes. ‘It moves me to hear about how it has helped others, especially this year.’

That a story about kindness and finding the courage to share struggles, fears and dreams has resonated so deeply with such a diverse audience reveals a truth that, although it may sometimes feel like it, we’re not in this alone. As they face dark clouds together, the horse bows so that the boy may rest his forehead against that velvety nose. ‘This storm will pass’, it reads underneath.

Mr Mackesy admits that, now he has fallen into step with the four characters, he’s not quite ready to leave them behind. ‘I’ve entered their world and I can’t seem to exit it. I’m stuck there. With everything going on at the moment, sometimes it’s nice to be taken to another land and I think their land is somewhere I quite enjoy being,’ he concludes with a smile. He’s not the only one.

‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’ is published by Ebury Press (£16.99)