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December 18, 2014

Ann Mah on Anne-with-an-e and Giving Books

Posted by emily

It’s easy to take for granted the impact a gift you give will have on its recipient. Ann Mah, journalist and author, most recently of MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH EATING, can trace how her own writing --- and the way she hopes to raise her daughter --- was influenced by a beloved childhood book, given to her by a grownup she’d never even met. So while you’re doing your last-minute holiday gift shopping, remember that a really good book can change someone’s life.

Sometimes the gifts you love the most come from unexpected sources. My favorite childhood book is a perfect example.

At age 11, I was an awkward bookworm who preferred reading to playing with the other kids in the neighborhood. Because my parents worked long hours, I had rare access to the public library, which meant I reread the classics on our household shelves over and over again. 

One day, my dad came home from work with a gift from the wife of a new colleague --- for me! Jane had heard about my dad's book-loving daughter named Ann and wanted to share one of her childhood favorites: ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. 

I immediately fell in love with Anne-with-an-e, identifying with her active imagination and sensitive nature. I loved that we shared an old-fashioned first name (though I regretted my lack of an "e") and felt that she, with her red hair, would understand my angst as one of the only Asian girls in school. I devoured the book's descriptions of rural Prince Edward Island and longed for my sterile Southern Californian suburb to sprout birch copses and seaside coves, to become a forest fairyland rich in natural beauty where my imagination could run wild. 

As a child, I vowed to one day visit Anne's beloved island. Last spring, I finally realized my dream when I traveled to Prince Edward Island to follow in the footsteps of author L.M. Montgomery for a travel story. I kept pinching myself as I wandered down red clay roads and among spruce groves. At Green Gables, I lingered outside Anne's room for a long time, gazing at the fluttering curtains and low white bed. The house appeared so exactly as I'd pictured it during my many readings of the book that I felt nostalgic for my own childhood.

I don't remember if the 11-year-old me thanked Jane for her gift, but I probably wrote her a note, perhaps I included a scribbled drawing. I don't think either of us could have imagined how her gift would continue to influence me, from the stories I write as an adult, to the way I hope to raise my own daughter. I've only met Jane a handful of times since my childhood, but whenever I think of Anne of Green Gables (which is often), I think of her. And sometimes I give books to little girls that I don't know very well. Because you never know what might happen.