A Nanny's Work Through Pictures and Words

Zach Frater

My Mother Was a Nanny: Paintings from the Book by Laura James
September 25, 2023 to January 28, 2024
Central Library, Youth Wing

While Julie Andrews’ performance as the magical nanny Mary Poppins captured the hearts of viewers in 1964, would you say that today’s real-life nannies, homemakers, babysitters and other domestic workers are as beloved? Sometimes as adults, it’s easy for us to overlook the things we see every day, even if those “things” are actually other people. In 2023, many of us still rely on domestic workers to clean our homes and offices, to watch and rear our children, and to perform a number of miscellaneous tasks that defy easy categorization. And yet, how often do we really look into the face of a nanny? How often do we ask about their own children, personal thoughts, interests and stories?

Self-taught artist and illustrator Laura James dares to ask these questions, bringing her own childhood memories to life in her latest children’s book, My Mother Was a Nanny. Released by the Ontario-based publishing house Groundwood Books on September 5, this is James’ third children’s book and the first to be based on her original writing. The story is inspired by the day-to-day life of her creative and entrepreneurial mother and is told as a series of vignettes illustrating a typical day for Mummy. It follows a nameless child tailing her busy mother as she performs the sacred work of cleaning, sewing, cooking and tending to other people’s children while also taking care of her own. While we might be quick to read the little girl in the story as little Laura, both she and the mother remain anonymous, allowing some room for the reader to insert their own narrative. To me, Mummy can be read as a stand-in for the domestic worker writ large. As such, James gives voice and insight into a person and situation we sometimes choose not to see.

My Mother Was a Nanny is an attempt by James to set the record straight on an often-maligned profession. If not maligned, certainly not celebrated, and one that usually presents a less than ideal situation for employer and employee. She touches on the fact that immigrating from the Caribbean led her mother and other relatives into domestic work in the first place. In the book, the main character’s aunt admits, “If there was work in Antigua, I would have stayed.” James’ straight approach to the reality of the situation is poignant. In our interview, the author remarks, “It isn’t a fairy tale like Mary Poppins. It is a true story by and large.”

Despite the potentially heavy subject matter surrounding the book, James manages to draw the reader into her unique childhood using highly legible and vibrantly painted imagery. The book’s color palette is dominated by muted and pastel tones, especially the backgrounds, making louder colors stand out boldly in contrast. Her organized yet spacious compositions provide plenty of places for the eye to rest, while delightful patterning techniques delineate clothing, upholstery, architectural details, food and miscellaneous objects. The book even delves at times into James’ surrealist painting style. In one particular spread of four sequential images, James very obviously quotes her own paintings, remixing imagery of a Black woman performing her domestic duties

in what appears to be a dreamscape. In one panel, her body floats across the air as she dusts vases and glassware equaling her in size. In another, a trio of White children, her charges, fly gaily about the room pulled by helium-filled balloons as she works. In her fine art paintings, James’ experiments in scale, space and symbolism emphasize the nanny’s yearning. In just two pages of her book, she subtly portrays that loneliness, as well as the nanny’s singular ability to float on air despite the heavy realities that might have led to her taking such a job.

James’ language is direct and unembellished, yet nuanced. The protagonist’s mother employs an overly familiar tone when addressing her daughter and I couldn’t help but laugh whenever Mummy scolded her pickney in patois for being slow, nosy, forgetful or greedy. Besides these motherly quips, I gleaned from Mummy’s tireless work ethic a certain tendency towards busyness, a trait I observe often in Caribbean women of a certain age, including my own grandmother, a homemaker. (Spoiler: the writer is Jamaican-American.) Between Mummy, her patois, and the briefest mention of soursop, James has managed to inject lots of “Caribbean-ness” into the book, whatever that means. James explains:

“It’s that whole Caribbean thing, you can’t get away from the religion, and you can’t get away from the work aspect. You can’t get away from the color. There’s always so much color in everything. And the struggle!”

For James, the story is deeply personal and is a direct offshoot of her work as a fine artist. Though she is most well-known for her Afrocentric paintings of Bible stories, as well as her secular paintings of women at leisure, James has also made a name for herself as a painter of “Nannies & Other Mothers,” referring to the domestic workers who at times play mother roles both in the lives of their employers as well as within their own families and communities.

James’ paintings have been included in international academic conferences on domestic work. She has also lobbied in Albany with Domestic Workers United fighting for labor rights, and has engaged in public discussions around her work with actual nannies and housekeepers who offered their honest feedback on her paintings and collectively contemplated their impact. The ability to advocate for people whose stories she knows intimately remains a great source of pride for James.

While My Mother Was a Nanny offers readers a stunning, clearly articulated storyscape to dive into, the artist has not always been quite so clear herself on how to reconcile with certain parts of her upbringing. While grateful for her parents’ sacrifice, James admits she did not always feel that being a nanny’s daughter was a positive thing:

“It’s not ideal. We’re picturing a situation that’s not ideal. I terribly resented my parents because my mother was so busy! As a child I saw my mother as a blur, like a whirlwind. And after I actually wrote this down, I really understood why.”

Through James’ young protagonist, we watch Mummy, an Antiguan immigrant, work tirelessly at caring for others, and those others are usually White. Though written from a sympathetic point of view, this intention does not mask what is inherently fraught about domestic work. Namely the uncomfortable racial dynamics it often highlights. When I asked James why the topic of domestic work is so taboo, she admitted, “People don’t want to think of being a servant, or even a master of a servant. It’s uncomfortable.”

Through the process of creating and distributing this book, James hopes to open up dialogue around this work and get rid of the taboo surrounding “the help.” James wants this book to be at the very least a conversation starter, tied up as it is in timeless issues involving race, class, immigration and labor. While it might at first appear niche, a brief stroll through Chelsea, the Upper East Side or anywhere else nannies are employed shows you that this social phenomenon is definitely widespread enough to be mainstream, and it’s about time we start having more honest conversations about it with the parents, children, and domestic workers all in the same room. With the book functioning as an homage to the domestic worker, James is very clear on what the potential social impact of the book could be:

“I think nannies, parents and children will see themselves in the story. It’s not all good, but maybe we can start a conversation. Maybe a child will ask their nanny, ‘Oh, do you have a child?’ And they can talk about it. The idea is to have everybody appreciate one another a little more.”


Zach Frater is a cultural critic and organizer from New York City. He interrogates and curates contemporary art, pop culture and community, focalizing BIPOC, queer, and nerdy narratives. Zach studied Art History at City College and is currently Visual Arts Program Associate at Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning. You can follow him (for now) on Instagram at @blaqueerdo.


This blog post reflects the opinions of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Brooklyn Public Library.


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