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Millions of fans have been uplifted by the work of author Charlie Mackesy, but Hoda Kotb learned in an emotional interview with the British illustrator that the personal stories of those touched by his bestselling book are where he draws his own inspiration.
Hoda is one of many fans of Mackesy's book, "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse," which has spent 63 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and sold more than a million copies.
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The tale of friendship between the four title characters and the inspirational lessons they learn along the way was originally released in 2019 with the publisher intending to print about 10,000 copies. It has since become a runaway bestseller that Hoda has regularly gifted to friends and family, saying the book hit her to her "core."
"To be truthful, I think I live a bit vicariously through other people's responses to the book," Mackesy told her Monday on TODAY with Hoda & Jenna. "And so I get hit hard by people who tell me that they've been hit hard by a certain drawing.
"And that moves me really, really deeply. If something has had an effect on someone else, then my emotion joins in with it."
Two stories that readers shared with him moved him to tears as he recounted them to Hoda.
"One of them, I got very recently, and he was saying that his father is 90 and has Alzheimer's and doesn't know them anymore," he said. "But he has the book. And he told me that the only way they can connect with him, emotionally in any way at all, is to sit and read the book with him.
"So you've got grandfather, son, and grandson sitting together, reading this book. And that's how they connect."
Mackesy had an even more profound experience with a young reader at a book signing in Oxford.
"There was a queue of people, and I was just signing and listening to their stories," he said. "And right at the end of the queue was a boy. He must've been, like, 19, and very quiet, and you could tell by the way he stood that he was a shy person.
"He said, 'I just wanted to say thank you.' And I said, 'It's a pleasure.' He said, 'I just want you to know that I decided to stay, if you understand what I'm saying.' And I said, 'I think I understand.' He said, 'I just want to say that I'm still here. And I wanted to stay.'''
Mackesy first set out to write the book hoping that just friends and family would enjoy it. The interactions with the teen fan and the family dealing with Alzheimer's brought home how much his work meant to a wider audience.
"That was another moment in my life where I thought, 'Well, if you made the book for these two people, I would take that, genuinely," he said.
While readers' stories of how the book has affected them have certainly resonated, Mackesy does draw some inspiration from the work itself. One drawing in the book that Mackesy particularly cherishes is an exchange between the boy and the horse.
"And obviously some drawings personally, like when the boy says, 'What's the bravest thing you've ever said?'" Mackesy said. "And the horse says, 'Help.' That was a part of my journey, was definitely having the courage when I was finding life really difficult, because being a man, particularly being an English man, you know, subculturally, it's difficult to appear to be weak.
"It's actually a real strength. It's really a courageous thing to say, 'I'm really struggling here.' So that has a big, deep meaning to me."
Mackesy's own personal journey to the bestseller list is an inspiration in itself. When he first began as an illustrator, he had a series of jobs as a waiter, a builder and a gardener and pursued his art on the side.
"I did everything," he said. "And kept drawing, you know? And then bit by bit, I did a show. I got a gallery. And, you know, and that's how it happened.
"Don't give up. Keep believing, even if you can't do it full time. It's really important just to chip away."
At the end of the book, Mackesy crossed out the ending and wrote in, "Look how far we've come."
"We've come a long way, all of us, to get to where we are,'' he said. "It's so easy to think we've got so much to do, and we've got so far to go. Or, you know, we're so tired.
"Just take stock of just how brilliant it is that you've got to where you are now. We have more to do, but just for a moment, think and say to yourself, 'Well done.'"