September 26, 2023
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.”