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A Bestseller is Born

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy was voted the book of the year by British book retailers Waterstones and Barnes & Noble.  Rachna Singh analyses the elements that made this book a bestseller. 

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The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy was released in October 2019. When I first saw the book, I thought it was a great book for children with its 100 or more illustrations, its calligraphic text and its little gems of wisdom strewn on every page. A bit like the indigenous Panchatantra tales and the Aesop’s Fables we have all grown up with. But I must admit that the popularity of the book took me by surprise. In the last 2 years, the book has leapfrogged into several bestseller lists, was voted as the book of the year by British book retailers Waterstones and Barnes & Noble and is being translated into 17 languages. It was also shortlisted for the 2020 British Book Awards Non-Fiction Lifestyle Book of the Year. In fact, it stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 100 weeks and sold more than a million copies. No minor feat that. So, what made this unlikely candidate, a bestseller? 

It all started with an innocuous Instagram post in January 2018 about a diminutive boy astride a big horse, a teeny-weeny cake loving mole and a wary fox. What made the illustration special was the simple conversation floating around the characters, a bit like the swirly top of a delicious ice cream cone. ‘What is the bravest thing that you have ever said?’ asked the boy. ‘Help’, said the horse. This calligraphic message set the tone and tenor of the conversations and was the trigger that set off an avalanche of positive reactions. Instagrammers loved these bits of wisdom. Hospitals, hospices, psychiatry wards began to use these simple messages to reassure and reach out to patients and broken souls. The Army began to use this message to bolster the sagging spirits of their men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders. 

And when the pandemic happened, these conversations and their profound but simple life philosophy offered respite from the anxiety and fear engendered by an unknown corona virus. Isolated and scared adults grabbed this book like a lifeline. The book encouraged one and all to hold on in the middle of a cataclysmic pandemic. ‘The storm is making me tired,’ said the boy. ‘Storms get tired too,’ said the horse, ‘so hold on.’ When dead bodies piled up in mortuaries and people could not meet sick and dying relatives and friends, such messages were shared on WhatsApp and other social media giving those reading them a strong belief that things would get better. ‘There are dark clouds,’ said the boy. ‘Yes, but they will move on,’ said the horse, ‘the blue sky above never leaves.’ ‘What’s the best thing you’ve learnt about storms?’ said the boy. ‘That they end,’ said the horse. It is no wonder then that the book was snapped up by both young and old, struggling to make sense of a world turned upside down. Mackesy was happy that his book offered comfort during the trying Covid times. He says, ‘It moves me to hear about how it has helped others, especially this year.’

Remember Winnie the Pooh? Remember John Livingston Seagull? They all offered a similar reassurance and support for the war weary generation of the 1920s and 1970s. So, Milne and Bach’s books became all-time hits and even today are a part of book lovers’ collections. Only the other day, someone sent me a Winnie the Pooh quote as a good morning message. ‘What day is it?’ asked Pooh. ‘It’s today,’ squeaked Piglet. ‘My favourite day’, said Pooh. I loved it. James Norbury’s ‘The Big Panda and the Tiny Dragon’ published in October 2020 also belongs to the same ilk and is making similar inroads into the hearts of people. The other day, it’s one of many, almost Sufi-like messages, caught my attention. ‘Tiny dragon searched and searched but couldn’t find what he was looking for. ‘Perhaps its already inside you?’ suggested Big Panda. 

Charlie Mackesy’s simple book, (like others of its genre) is not a book you should judge by its cover. It looks like a book that will find place on the bookshelves of the Children section, but it is more than ‘a small graphic novel of images with conversation, over landscape.’ It gives a universal message of love, kindness and strength to survive odds. Strangely enough, in some places it reminds me of the Persian poet Rumi. Rumi’s ‘do not sell yourself short. You are priceless’ finds echo in ‘What’s your best discovery?’ asked the Mole. ‘That I am enough as I am,’ said the boy. And the best thing is that the book never lapses into a sermon or talks down to readers. The reader joins the four characters in their journey ‘into closeness and honesty’ and sits in on conversations about what ‘really mattered.’ This is what makes the book special and accounts for the way readers have wholeheartedly embraced it. Up until now I had not purchased this book. I would simply browse through Mackesy’s illustrations and conversations posted on his Instagram account whenever I needed a-pick-me-up. Or I simply listened to its audio book, narrated in a calm and meditative tone, to pull me out of morose thoughts. But I finally gave in to the temptation and purchased the book. It now is a reassuring presence on my bedside. That’s how bestsellers are born.

~Rachna Singh

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