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The Nanny Diaries: Six Creepy Novels Involving Childcare


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Tell me if this story sounds familiar: A young woman moves to a new town and finds work caring for a little boy (or a little girl, or maybe one of each). The parents are distant or completely absent, caught up in busy careers (or possibly dead). The children have few friends, and every night the house is troubled by strange noises. The nanny suspects supernatural activity, but everyone says it’s just her imagination.

These are the broad strokes of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and my novel Hidden Pictures plays with the formula by moving the action to an affluent New Jersey suburb and adding tons of creepy black-and-white drawings (the child in my story is an artist prone to violent illustrations).

But I’m hardly the first writer to be inspired by The Turn of the Screw’s plot and mood. Novelists and Hollywood screenwriters have been riffing on the story for nearly 125 years! Here are six of my favorite books featuring inquisitive nannies, creepy children, supernatural forces, curiously distant parents, disapproving housekeepers, and so much more.

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The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

We begin with the Grand Dame of every ghostly nanny novel—a book that established all the ground rules much like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice created the template for contemporary romcoms. For decades, this Henry James novella was a staple of high school curriculums (if you have to persuade teenagers to read 19th century literature, I guess it helps to have a ghost). Its fans include everyone from Stephen King to Gillian Flynn, and 2020 brought a nine-episode adaptation on Netflix: The Haunting of Bly Manor.

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The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

The title gives a not-so-subtle nod to Ware’s inspiration.  This high-tech update on Henry James finds a nanny named Rowan taking a job in a mansion full of surveillance devices and smart-home technology. The interview brings plenty of warning signs (the last few nannies have abruptly quit; one of the children sobs “it’s not safe here…”) but Rowan takes the job, anyway.  Is it any wonder things start going bump in the night?

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This House is Haunted by John Boyne

Boyne is no stranger to writing about bygone eras; his WWII holocaust fable The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fixture on many high school reading lists, and his magnificent saga The Heart’s Invisible Furies chronicles seventy-some years of life in Ireland. With This House is Haunted, Boyne travels to 1867 to offer his own unique variant on The Turn of the Screw. Once again, we have a nanny venturing to a strange house to care for two small children. But when she arrives at the house, she’s surprised to find she’s the only adult on the premises. And things just get stranger from there…

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Nanny Needed by Georgina Cross

Here’s yet another nanny taking yet another job in yet another glamorous dwelling. Sarah finds work caring for a small child in a penthouse apartment on New York City’s upper west side. She doesn’t have good employment references, or any experience dealing with kids, but her new employers offer her the gig, anyway. There’s just one very twenty-first century complication: Sarah must agree to sign an extremely restrictive NDA. Because “discretion is of the utmost importance.” (Also because this family is up to no good.)

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The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani

By this point, maybe you’re ready for something outside the reliable Turn of the Screw template—so consider this international bestseller (and winner of France’s prestigious Goncourt prize). New mother Myriam is ready to return to work, and she finds the perfect nanny in Louise, a seemingly perfect young woman who cooks and cleans and plans the perfect birthday parties. But it isn’t long before things go south (at 240 pages, this is a quick one- or two-night read). It’s also a fairly polarizing book, and your enjoyment of the story might be gauged by how you respond to its chilling opening line: “The baby is dead.”

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Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Okay, I’m totally cheating here. There are no nannies in Rebecca—and no childcare, either. But as I compiled this list, I kept thinking about Manderley (one of the most famous houses in literature, where most of the story takes place) and Mrs. Danvers (the mansion’s famously sinister housekeeper). So I’ve decided this classic gothic novel deserves an honorable mention. First published in 1938, Rebecca was an instant bestseller and it’s never gone out of print. The story concerns a young (unnamed) woman who impetuously marries a wealthy widower—only to find that her new husband (and everyone else at Manderley) is still fairly obsessed with his late wife, Rebecca. If you enjoy a good ghostly nanny novel, you’ll find a lot of the same pleasures here.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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