I’d like to share with you an experience I had recently.
I pulled into a petrol station that I don’t normally use. The young man filling up my tank said shyly, ‘Books! You’ve got so many books!’ And there they were, on the back seat, in boxes of varying sizes. I serve on a committee called Friends of the Library.
Similar groups can be found all over the world, and in my area, we work to raise money for public libraries, particularly those in under-resourced schools, because we believe literacy is of paramount importance to young people. I’m so used to collecting ‘gently worn’ volumes from kind donors who have weeded out their collections so that we can then sell them on or donate them, that I don’t notice them anymore.
In fact, I’m so used to it, that there are boxes of books in my care, and all over my house, because COVID-19 has prevented us from having a book sale. I’m drowning, if you’ll pardon my mixed metaphor, in books.
I’m always thrilled when a young person indicates a love for reading, so I opened up the car and let the young man run his hands over thrillers, poetry collections and novels. I said to him, ‘You can have any book you want, but the next time I come, I want to hear what you thought of it.’
Suddenly I noticed that he wasn’t after any of these somewhat dusty tomes. His eyes had alighted on a new book lying on the front passenger seat. It’s a bestseller called The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy. I said, ‘Take it. You’ll love it’. He did, and he did, if you’ll pardon me again, and we’ve become friends who talk about books and which ones we love the most.
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Mackesy, a one-time cartoonist for the Spectator and a book illustrator for Oxford University Press, weighed in on why he thought the book had become so globally loved so quickly, saying his inspiration came from: ‘conversations I’ve had with my friends about what life really means, what’s important. It was a way for me to think aloud on paper with words and drawings.’
On one level, that is what this extraordinary book is, a conversation between an unusual group of friends, a boy, a mole, a fox and a horse. It’s also about so much more. Mackesy explained in interview that,
All four characters represent different parts of the same person; the inquisitive boy, the mole who’s enthusiastic but a bit greedy, the fox who’s been hurt so is withdrawn from life, slow to trust but wants to be part of things, and the horse who’s the wisest bit, the deepest part of you, the soul.
I’m not a bit surprised that the book has been used by the British army to treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Think how much it could mean to children in your school who have been, over the last two years, exposed to a radically different life due to COVID-19 restrictions. If you can, please buy one for yourself and another copy to give to someone to whom you think it will make a meaningful difference. And, as I have learnt time and time again, never presume that everyone has access to books.
The last picture in Mackesy’s book is for me the most meaningful. It’s one of the fox, the boy and the mole sitting on the broad back of the horse, looking out into the night. One of them says, ‘Home isn’t always a place, is it?’