Book of the Year!

 

 
Mackesy, Charlie. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. New York: HarperCollins, 2019. Barnes & Noble Book of the Year.
 
Barnes & Noble booksellers everywhere participated in the selection of the corporation’s inaugural Book of the Year prize. The diverse finalists included books published in 2019 such as Margaret Atwood’s The Testament (Knopf Doubleday), Stephen Fry’s Mythos: The Greek Myths Reimagined (Chronicle), and Greta Thurberg’s No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference (Penguin). British author-illustrator Charlie Mackesy’s incredibly exquisite children’s book, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, was the overwhelming winner. 
 
Mackesy's seemingly simple fable of a lonely young boy and his unlikely three anthropomorphic animal friends presents a magical journey they take as winter turns to spring in England. Just as the four characters engage in a plain yet powerful dialogue that reveals an ideal world of love, friendship and kindness, so also does the author carry on a conversation with readers who will marvel at the beautiful integration of exquisite color and black-and-white drawings and gentle words of wisdom. He begins by sharing with readers that he almost never reads introductions or commences reading at the beginning of a book. He usually starts reading a book in the middle. He also shares in his very personal cursive writing that he needs lots of pictures to enjoy a book. Pictures serve as safe islands for him in seas of words. One of the joys of this lovely fable is that readers can indeed turn to almost any page and begin reading. It is also clear that this book which is destined to become a classic contains remarkable wisdom and visual beauty on every single page. The author invites readers to make his book their very own. They can start in the middle or anywhere they choose. They can scribble in it, crease the corners and leave it well thumbed.
 
Early on the young boy meets his first of three animal friends, a tiny mole. The mole asks the inevitable question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  
 
“Kind” is the boy’s affecting reply. 
 
In turn, the boy asks the mole, “What do you think is the biggest waste of time?” 
 
“Comparing yourself with others.” The mole, whose passion is eating cakes, adds another life lesson. “Most of the old moles I know wish they had listened less to their fears and more to their dreams.” 
 
These treasures of wisdom about how to live a joyful and fearless life are found with each new encounter of the four characters. The relationship between the fox and the mole who in the present world would be that of predator and prey is straight out of Aesop’s fable of “The Lion and the Mouse.” When the boy and his new friend, the mole, meet the fox it has become ensnared. With great effort and kindness the mole uses his tiny sharp teeth to chew through the wire that would otherwise bring about the fox’s certain death. As the boy, the mole, and the fox continue their travels they ultimately meet the far larger horse who also is wise. The horse notes that “Everyone is a bit scared, but we are less scared together. Tears fall for a reason and they are your strength not weakness.” 
 
The boy inquires of his new friend, the horse who can magically fly, “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” 
 
“Help” replies the horse. 
 
Much of the beauty of  The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is found in surprising responses. The ever inquisitive mole asks the boy the familiar philosophical question, “Is your glass half empty or half full?’’ 
 
The boy answers, “I think I’m grateful to have a glass.” 
 
Kindness and love are the hallmarks of this modern fable. The ever-wise horse speaks to the shy and quiet fox, “We don’t know about tomorrow. All we need to know is that we love each other.” 
 
The mole further questions the boy while all four characters are resting during their wanderings, “What’s your best discovery?” 
 
The boy needs no time to search for a learned reply. He straightaway says, “That I’m enough as I am.”
 
Many critics have likened Charlie Machesy’s fable-fantasy to A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (E. P. Dutton). In this writer’s view, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse, is closer in its tone and emotional pull to The Little Prince (Harcourt) by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It is really an adult book written for children. The realities of the present world  are revealed as being shallow, superficial, and even cruel in an exchange between the boy and the horse.
 
“When have you been at your strongest?” the boy questions. 
 
“When I have dared to show my weakness,” the horse replies and then adds, “Asking for help isn’t giving up. It’s refusing to give up.”
 
Early on in the story when the boy and the mole first meet and have a surprisingly fresh dialogue, the boy – even at a tender age – ponders conventional wisdom. 
 
“I wonder if there is a school for unlearning.” 
 
These thoughts and the boy’s rhetorical question will be most easily understood by older readers. But, the fable is clearly meant for readers of all ages as the author attests in his charming introduction. This beautiful book is perfectly created for sharing between parents and children. The life lessons espoused by the boy and his animal friends first appear simple, but in reality they are profoundly thoughtful. After one or two shared readings with an adult, even quite young children can open the pages of the book at their favorite point and read it just as the author tells them he reads – begin on any page. 
 
A simple exchange epitomizes the gentle nature of this extraordinary fable. The ever-wise mole says to the boy, “I’ve discovered something better than cake.”
 
“No you haven’t,” the boy responds. 
 
“I have” replies the mole. 
 
“What is it?” the boy inquires. 
 
“A hug. It lasts longer.” 
 
Readers often overlook the vital importance of book design. The book is written entirely in cursive. The choice of cursive writing for even the cover and title page as well as the entire text adds to the gentle and lovely flow of emotions and the interconnectedness of the words and images. Although the drawings are primarily black-and-white, the occasional color washes heighten the appeal of the whole. The opening and closing end pages are sheet music enhanced with images of the book’s four characters. Even the lyrics are philosophical. The horse tells the young boy, “Just take this (first) step...The horizon will look after itself.”
 
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse presents a journey not to be missed. 
 
 
Activities for Teachers and Homeschoolers
 
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is the story of a special journey. The four friends are not quite at home yet at the close of the story. Invite students who have read the book multiple times to add a new passage for an event that takes place as their sojourn continues.
 
The deceptively simple dialogues between the four characters of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse are most often fundamental insights about life and living with kindness, courage, love, and joy. The fox is the most shy or quiet of the four characters. Challenge readers to create a new scene or passage in which the fox poses a thoughtful question or comment. Urge the use of both words and drawings.
 
Ask readers to expand The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse to include a fifth character. What new animal joins the boy, the mole, the fox, and the horse? How, when, and where do they meet? What questions and answers does the new character add to the whole of the story?