Charlie Mackesy’s sweet, whimsical book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse expresses the wisdom of mindfulness and heart practices. The story and words are simple: a boy befriends three animals, and they roam through nature talking about life and friendship. Loose, expressive illustrations bring wonderful and varied texture to the scenes. The book is like a safe little world it feels good to delve into.
Themes of awareness, connection, and loving kindness guide the story. If you practice meditation, these ideas are familiar:
“One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things.”
“Nothing beats kindness. It sits quietly beyond all things.”
“When the big things feel out of control, focus on what you love right under your nose.”
There is a message of finding strength within our humanness, within the messiness of life. As in mindfulness practice, kindness begins toward ourselves; our internal felt sense of love and connection brings comfort; and the feeling of being at home happens not in a physical location but rather within our own hearts. “We often wait for kindness,” Mackesy writes, “but being kind to yourself can start now.”
And along with these ideas of inner practice, Mackesy also offers a subtle counterpoint to notions of rugged independence and individualism that can end up leaving us lonely. He writes, “Asking for help isn’t giving up. It’s refusing to give up.” And there’s this touching exchange between the horse and the boy:
“Sometimes I think you believe in me more than I do,” said the boy.
“You’ll catch up,” said the horse.
What saves the book from sentimentality are two things: it acknowledges vulnerability, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
One moment that catches me is when the boy asks the horse if he has any other advice, and the horse says, “Don’t measure how valuable you are by the way you are treated.” This simple idea contains a complex depth: so many of us have experiences of not being treated with the kindness we deserve. When that happens in childhood or goes on too long at any stage of life, it’s natural for it to affect our self-worth. In more serious cases, it’s the classic scenario of the abused person who starts to believe they deserve it. This is how broken-down we can become when we’re mistreated by people who are supposed to care about us. The horse’s simple advice on this point may not be easy, but it is vitally important—in some cases, even life-saving.
I love Mackesy’s hand-drawn pages and their imperfections. A teacup stain appears on one page. On another spread, the boy marvels at how perfect a pair of swans looks gliding on a pond. “There’s a lot of frantic paddling going on beneath,” the horse tells him. And where the mole comments on the illusion of perfection as an ideal, the text is smudged. In small print at the bottom of the page, Mackesy has noted, “My dog walked over the drawing—clearly trying to make the point.”
The book is simple and accessible enough to read to a young person, and yet it’s not a children’s book. It’s a little piece of art and insight with enormous depth of wisdom behind it.