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Blog post

Q&A with Charlie Mackesy

25 Jan 2024

Children’s Mental Health Week is an annual calendar moment which falls this year between 5 and 11 February 2024. At a time where the challenges facing children’s mental health are all too prevalent, we wanted to be part of the conversation.

This year to mark Children’s Mental Health Week, we partnered with Penguin Random House UK and much-admired author and illustrator Charlie Mackesy to create a range of resources for schools and educators inspired by his masterful, illustrated story, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse.

We recognise the role teachers and educators can play in supporting children and young people to better understand how to identify, articulate and manage their sense of wellbeing. We also believe that literacy changes everything and recognise the correlation between literacy levels and wellbeing. We know that reading has the power to improve our wellbeing, in fact our recent research shows that 3 in 5 (59.4%) children and young people feel that reading helps them relax and 3 in 10 said reading made them feel more confident (29.8%) or helped them deal with problems (27.3%). We want all children to have access to these skills, to experience the transformative power of reading for pleasure; the cathartic possibilities of being able to write down their feelings and the empowering confidence to celebrate their individuality through literacy.

Charlie Mackesy has kindly answered a few of our questions and given us a glimpse into his creative process as well as discussing ways that teachers have used his book to unpick the universal themes of kindness, friendship and understanding with their class.

Over to Charlie…

Charlie Mackesy Author Image Credit Charlie Gray

Photo: Charlie Mackesy. Image credit: Charlie Gray

Children and young people face many external pressures and influences in 2024 which impact their mental health. Do you have any reflections on why it is important to mark Children’s Mental Health Week?

I think it’s very important the world understands that this is a big issue – particularly at the moment, given the levels of anxiety children have been experiencing. They’re still processing the years of the pandemic and lock down, so to raise awareness of these things is very important to me.

Our resources for younger pupils are inspired by your book and explore topics of uniqueness and celebrate individuality. Why are these themes important to you?

I think it took me quite a while to recognise that ‘different’ was a good thing, and I think we can spend a lot of our energy trying to fit in and be the same as everybody else. As I grew up, I started to realise the importance of individuality and how it’s a great thing and should be celebrated in everyone.

What advice would you give your 11-year-old self about managing or understanding the myriad of emotions you might face?

I would tell my 11-year-old self that all emotions are important and legitimate. It’s vital that you express them. My one proviso would be, be careful who you express them to when you make yourself vulnerable, but nothing you feel is ever wrong. Emotions exist for a reason, and they are not your fault. They are a real response to a real situation. Never be ashamed of what you feel.

Why do you feel it is important to equip and empower children with literacy skills and why did you choose to work with the National Literacy Trust on this project?

Being able to read connects us with the rest of the world, it connects us in so many ways. Understanding other people, navigating your way through life, connecting with other worlds and other ways of thinking. Helping us to feel part of the rest of humanity. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said, “We read to know we are not alone”. I think that what the National Literacy Trust is doing is just so important for the long-term health of everyone.

What do you think it is about reading that helps children process their feelings, build confidence and relax?

Reading can stimulate a child’s imagination. It can help them feel less alone, it can take them away from their own situation for a while. It can give them a new perspective on their own lives, it can give them hope. And all these things will inevitably help them with their confidence because it helps them understand and feel less isolated.

You know that feeling of: “Oh you feel this too! I had no idea.” It’s that sort of idea. Again, I think C.S. Lewis said something like “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: "What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” Reading a story can help children feel less alone.

Do you have any tips for teachers about how to use your book to inspire or support children? What would you hope teachers and children get from reading and engaging with the illustrations and themes?

One of the things I loved about lockdown was that schools printed out pages of my book and put them on their walls to encourage children. I think the combination of images and words, make the words more accessible to children because there’s an emotional drawing that comes with them. I think schools could explore each page and encourage children to make their own drawings, make their own emotions. I think what I’m saying is that the book could be a catalyst for children to explore what they really feel and put it down on paper.

I hear from schools who tell me each day they discuss one page, say in an assembly, and then open-up for discussions – which they then take into their classes for the next period – I love that. I love it because when I was at school, lessons were passive, they were learning what had happened or what someone else had said, and I hope that these pages will encourage children to say what they think and feel… as much as reading what other people have to say. I think to encourage a child to find their own voice, to express their own emotions, is a very important journey.

Can you tell us a bit more about your process for creating your work and how you generate, explore and foster your ideas? What is your motivation for creating a book like The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse?

I think ideas sit with me for a long time before they ever come out on paper. I don’t think I have any particular process but somewhere in my head I’m always ruminating over ideas and ways of making them simple. Sometimes in conversation with friends, I hear someone say something they’re struggling with or hope for or don’t understand and that sparks my thinking and drawing. I think a lot of my motivation, with all of this work, is just to encourage people in lots of different ways to feel better about themselves and more hopeful.

Your book has been incredibly successful and is much-loved by millions. What does success look like for you?

I think if any book can reach one person and help them, it’s a success. Real success for me has been reading the emails and letters and responses from people, that tell me how their lives have been impacted by the book.

Find more resources to try in your setting. Donate today and help us change more life stories with the power of literacy.
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