There’s no dearth of death in today’s children’s books. These days you can as easily find books on the loss of a parent as on the loss of a goldfish, and everything in between. And that’s okay. Stories are an excellent way to process a delicate but perennial, once-verboten topic.
Bon Voyage, Mister Rodriguez has found another gap to fill: what about the death of a neighbour, or those people you see every day but don’t know all that well? Those who, when they suddenly disappear, take a part of the community with them?
Mister Rodriguez is just such a person. The neighbourhood kids, from whose perspective this simple tale is told, don’t know much about him. They simply know that he’s old and that he steps out of a narrow laneway every day at four o’clock to stroll the cobbled streets of what looks to be a seaside European town. With his bright red scarf, duckbill cap, and fine black coat and shoes, the white-haired, mustachioed Mister Rodriguez cuts a dashing figure.
But then, over the course of a week, odd things start happening. Mister Rodriguez appears to have clouds, “or maybe balloons” under his coat. He’s seen tying a silk thread around a dove’s foot and taking it for a stroll, balancing a fishbowl on his head, attaching a pair of wings to the back of an elderly cat, and sitting on a mysterious piano. On the last day, Mister Rodriguez appears, airborne, with all these odd elements together, pointing to the sky. “We never saw Mister Rodriguez after that,” the children tell us. “He had gone away, probably forever. But we knew he was happy.”
No tears, no sentimentality, no explicit mention of death – it’s possible to read this book as a quirky story about a magical musician. It can also be appreciated just for illustrator François Thisdale’s gorgeous, painterly spreads, with their becalming greens, blues, and ochres. Either way, it boils down to the simple acknowledgement of a life, apparently well lived, by some young witnesses. Christiane Duchesne, an award-winning Quebec author, has had many books translated into English. Interestingly, this is the first written in English, though its combination of whimsy and gravitas would translate well into any language.