Andromeda Romano-Lax

romanolaxI was maybe six or seven years old when I stumbled across one of many Waukegan Library books that would become a passport to my future as a writer and a traveler.

A Trip to Quebec by Terry Shannon was a children’s picture book depicting the quiet adventures of an idealized family of four: Ward Cleaver-like father and son in identical blue suits and bow ties, June Cleaver-like mother and daughter in matching red dresses, all but the father with bright yellow hair.

The story, in black text at the bottom of the page, didn’t hold my interest beyond the second or third reading. But the teach-yourself French vocabulary in blue text, above the story, filled me with hours of excitement and longing.

“Je m’appelle… my name is” was rendered in phoneticized italic, “zhuh ma-pel.” “Les animaux…the animals” was spelled out “lay-zan-i-moh.” I must have checked out the book a dozen times, hoping to absorb through repetition: Where is the hotel? I am tired. The carriage, the horses. Good-bye, good luck.

What a pleasure for a child, to teach oneself without adult interference, to dream of going to exotic, faraway places! I think I became a traveler staring at that picture book’s simple, comforting watercolor illustrations, paired with its challenging blue French text, which seemed to whisper in my ear: Read and repeat. It’s up to you. Just one phrase at a time, and you can go anywhere. A good library is home to thousands of books that whisper similar phrases into the ears of readers, challenging and inspiring them to imagine new paths, new lives, revealed a word or phrase at a time.

Thirty years later, I live in Alaska – farther from Waukegan than French Canada. I am the author of more than ten books of nonfiction, mostly travel guides and natural history, and a first novel, The Spanish Bow, about musicians struggling to create and perform, to find happiness and love, in a climate of political turmoil. These characters speak many languages – Spanish, French, German, Italian – and they also speak the language of music, which I had to study in order to write the book. It was a big undertaking, overwhelming at times, made easier by the lesson I learned as child in my hometown library: Just one phrase at a time, and you can go anywhere.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of a novel, The Spanish Bow (Harcourt, 2007), which will be published in ten languages; a travelogue, Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez: A Makeshift Expedition Along Baja’s Desert Coast (Sasquatch Books, 2002); and other books about Mexico and Alaska. She lived in Waukegan from 1970 to 1991.