The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse: A Meditation on Kindness - Book Review
Last week, I opened up three big boxes filled with 370 children’s and young adult books that Barnes & Noble and its customers donated to the Children’s Literacy Foundation, where I work. On top of the stack was an intriguing hard-cover chapter-length book with a compelling cover and a sticker that said, “Barnes & Noble Book of the Year.” It was The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by British author Charlie Mackesy. I flipped through the first few pages, which were sparsely adorned with quick-looking sketches and the occasional watercolor breaking up the simple black and white drawings. There was a lot of white space. Many pages had few or no words and what prose was there looked like it had been quickly drawn from an inkwell. The limited text looked handwritten, uneven, and a little sloppy. One page included a note about the author’s dog stepping on it and smearing the ink; another displayed a tea stain.
“Where should I put this strange and beautiful book?”
I wondered. On the chapter-book shelf? Early chapter? Picture book? It didn’t quite seem to fit under any of these genres. Despite being 118 pages long, it’s a very quick read that can be done in one sitting (though you’ll probably want to take your time with the images and think about the meaningful aphorisms that populate its pages).
Mackesy’s masterpiece is difficult to describe; it transcends labels. It’s something I’ve never seen before. The word I want to use is lovely. Everything about this book is absolutely lovely. Reading it is like receiving a tight, warm hug from a loved one. Stunning, inspiring, and enrapturing all come to mind, too. And yet, it doesn’t follow any of the rules of a traditional book, much less a children’s book.
Not much happens. There is no narrative arc, no real story, no particular challenge faced by any of the characters, which are the four mentioned in the title.
The challenge seems to be existence, something the book waxes on, and the inherent sadness of being. It recognizes how big and messy and painful the act of being human is. It offers profound wisdom about kindness and forgiveness, and the human condition (represented as much by the book’s non-humans as by the boy). The book represents the loneliness of childhood— how big and scary the world can be, yet how deeply filled with love and friendship it can be as well.
What mostly happens is sitting. First, the boy sits with the mole. They become friends from just sitting alone together, watching the world, and discussing life. They come across the fox, who wants to eat the mole but is trapped, and the mole chooses kindness at his own peril and frees the fox, who joins them. They then come across a wise and magnificent horse. There are many images of the four creatures simply walking or sitting together, discussing what matters.
The illustrations don’t look like one might expect a children’s book to look. These four characters don’t have faces; on some pages, they’re just a few quick (looking) lines. Yet they move. They are evidence of the kind of hard work it takes to make something look so simple. Or, as the oft-quoted and attributed-to-many saying goes, I would have made it shorter if I had more time. For as simple as it seems, it’s clear that Mackesy took his time, toiling over every brushstroke, thinking long and hard about every bit of dialogue. It’s brilliantly patient, slow, and quiet. It gives space for reflection, usually just a sentence of two on a two-page fold.
The book is a conversation between these four characters that feels like it could go on forever.
The mole’s introduction to the boy is, “I’m so small.” To which the boy responds, “Yes, but you make a huge difference.” This calls back to Dr. Seuss’ “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” This seems to be a theme of the book—the vast and incredible hugeness of the world, our relatively small yet meaningful existence, as well as the power of friendship, love, and kindness. “Being kind to yourself is one of the greatest kindnesses,” the mole says. And this book is inherently kind. It’s more than deserving of Barnes & Noble’s distinction. However, I do worry the book will look too old for some kids who would love its simple drawings and easy-to-understand and yet profound ideas if given a chance. It would make for perfect bedtime reading and discussion. In many ways, it reminds me of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, which frequently depicts simple, innocent, and meaningful dialogue between Pooh and his friends.
The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse’s opening pages are Mackesy’s letter to his readers, much more text than you’ll see in the rest of the book. “The boy is full of questions,” he writes, “the mole greedy for cake. The fox is mainly silent because he’s been hurt by life. The horse is the biggest thing they have encountered, and also the gentlest. They are all different, like us, and each has their own weaknesses. I can see myself in all four of them, perhaps you can, too.” I can.
Though we don’t learn much of any of these characters’ past or future, we love them anyway; they are us.
With his broad strokes, Mackesy has left this book almost a blank page, inviting us, his readers, to color in our own lives and personal struggles. It’s a remarkably thoughtful and visually stunning book that would be a fantastic holiday gift (hint: everyone whose list I’m on) for readers of all ages.
“I hope this book encourages you, perhaps,” Mackesy writes, “to live courageously with more kindness for yourself and for others.” I think it will. But where do I put it on the shelf?
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About The Blogger
Erika Nichols-Frazer is a freelance writer and editor, as well as the part-time Communications Manager at the Children’s Literacy Foundation. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She won Noir Nation’s 2019 Golden Fedora fiction prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in HuffPost, Literary Orphans, Noir Nation, Lunate, OC87 Recovery Diaries, Please Do Not Remove: A Collection Celebrating Vermont Literature and Libraries, and elsewhere. She is a reader for Literary Orphans. She lives in Vermont.
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