I like books that are a little twisted. The more grounded in reality a book is and the more twists is throws, the more it makes me question character motives and desires, the more I find myself enjoying the book. Janet Ruth Young’s forthcoming The Babysitter Murders was strange, haunting and one of those reads that will be sticking with me for a long, long time. In the midst of creating a plot rife with horror, Young offers us a sympathetic and relatable main character who wants nothing more than help for struggling with a severe mental disorder. Moreover, this book was even a little funny.
Dani is a babysitter, and she loves the little boy for whom she’s in charge. It’d been a dream for her to babysit, and she lucked out with babysitting Alex. The book opens with something innocuous: the television news reporting on a murder that’d taken place. Dani, wanting to protect Alex, takes him out of the room and tries to wipe the images of the dead child’s body being removed from the scene of the crime out of her mental image.
But she can’t. In fact, this scene keeps replaying in her mind. Dani’s fixated on this idea, and she begins to wonder if maybe she could commit a murder so vicious. It’s not that she wants to, it’s that she would never want to do something so gruesome. But the thoughts won’t escape her head, and every time she sees Alex, she has to stop thinking about what it would be like to kill him. She goes through routines of making sure things like the sharp knives are hidden, that any potential weapons are out of her reach and line of vision.
Dani can’t handle the thoughts anymore. She wants to be able to function normally, to not think about killing this child she adores so much. And she reaches out — she tells Alex’s mother about these thoughts in an effort to get some help and in an effort to clear her mind. Everyone has strange thoughts, and Dani wants to get it out there.
The problem comes, of course, in that Alex’s mother is not okay with hearing Dani has had thoughts of killing her son. Even though Dani’s admitted to never doing it and not wanting to do it, Alex’s mother doesn’t do Dani any favors; instead, his mother calls the police to come “take care” of this girl who wants to kill her son. She’s sent to the police, where she’s questioned, then she’s sent home, where her life gets only harder, not easier, when she begins seeing a therapist for these thoughts. Dani’s got obsessive compulsive disorder, with an emphasis on the obsessive, rather than compulsive, aspects, and the support structure she desperately needs to overcome her thoughts just doesn’t exist.
In the effort to not spoil the story, I won’t explain why the ending is one of the most enjoyable I’ve read in a while. But it was — Dani will get her say in the matter of her life, even if it may land her in more, rather than less, trouble down the road.
The Babysitter Murders was one of the most terrifying (yet funny) books I’ve read in a while. Young manages to take an exceptionally scary topic and idea and weave just enough humor within it to temper the heavy issues. The book is fast paced, and it’s one I read nearly in one sitting because I was eager to learn what would happen to Dani: would she ever recover? Would she put these obsessive, unhealthy thoughts into action? Would she ever get the help she desperately needs?
Dani was an exceptionally well written and sympathetic character. We’re given insight into her thought process and her mind throughout the story, and even though it is skewed from normal thinking, we actually understand everything she’s going through. Everyone gets fixated on thoughts, so we relate; where we realize there’s a problem with Dani’s thinking is that she cannot let it go, and she goes through the motions to ensure she doesn’t accidentally follow through in some of her thoughts. In one scene, she’s in music rehearsal, thinking about doing something to her instructor; she becomes so obsessed with whether she’s actually performed the act she’s been thinking about that she has to step back and ask her friend if she’s just done something weird or out of the ordinary (she hasn’t). It takes what most of us experience on a daily basis and amplifies it. For me as a reader, the scariest things are those I understand and relate to, not those that are so outlandish I could never connect with — but here, I connected with Dani because I understand completely these strange, skewed thoughts. The difference being, of course, I can stop mine while she cannot.
The biggest thing that stood out to me in the book was how sympathetic Dani was as a character. She’s the one who reaches out for help again and again, even though she’s treated poorly in the process. Rather than allow herself to do something that could land her in huge trouble and ruin the lives of others, she reaches out to an adult she trusts for help. The problem, of course, is that the adult betrays her trust and immediately considers her a criminal, rather than someone with a true mental disorder. It’s not just in this instance, though, that Dani becomes a target. After she’s been taken away from Alex’s home by police, her arrest hits the newspapers; the police reports list taking an under age girl into custody for a “threat” to kill a small child. Though her name is never listed as the girl (since she is underage), it takes little more than some Googling for people in town to figure out who the person is, and she becomes a target for hatred in her community. Even the police write her off as a rich kid who needed a hobby, rather than a very mentally ill teen who needed help. As readers, we know what a good person she is, but there is no one in this story who is on her side. Dani cares so deeply about the people in her life, yet no one wants to reach out and show her the same sort of love. It’s painful to read because we understand her and because we want the people around her to get it, too.
Onto the humor of the story — perhaps funny isn’t the word many people would use. Perhaps the reason this book resonated as a bit humorous to me was because it’s uncomfortable, and Young knows this. To make it less a horror read, she offers just enough small details and interactions between characters that are absurd, and these absurdities undercut the seriousness of the greater plot and scenes. It’s not played as a trick or as a slight of hand, but rather as a way to reground the story in reality. Because even in the midst of exploring a severe mental illness, there is still a lot of humor in life and in character, so it’s critical these moments are highlighted. Both the readers and the characters deserve these moments to breathe and recollect. I’ll be honest in saying I don’t know if it’s a universal humor nor that everyone will find the funny in the book, but for me as a reader, it was spot on. It was a bit of an uncomfortable and unsettling kind of funny that I appreciate greatly and find is hard to nail. Young, however, succeeds here.
As I mentioned earlier, though, this book ends with a bang. I cheered for Dani throughout the story, and I wanted her to get better and find a way to recover and earn respect again in her community. In the last chapter, I think she achieves this, and she does it in a manner that shouldn’t have caused me to cheer (but it did). Although this story is focused on Dani’s OCD, it’s also a story about relationships and how tricky they can be to navigate and understand; the end, I think, tied up the loose ends about what relationships meant to someone with such disordered thinking.
This book reminded me a lot of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, though Young’s target readership is young adults. The books both look at the effects of being an outsider within a community, and both bring up the idea of vigilante justice. Dani becomes a target of violence and hatred out of misunderstanding and out of prejudice, much like the recovered pedophile does in Perrotta’s story.
The Babysitter Murders is one to hand off to fans of psychological thrillers, though there’s less emphasis on the thriller aspect and more on the psychological. It’s a contemporary story about mental illness, and it’s one that won’t be for every reader — it can get a little visual in discussing murder and justice. It’s suited to its age group, and I think it’s easily one of those books that teens who prefer adult contemporary titles will find enjoyable (and it may even change their mind about any prejudices they may have about ya books). I could see fans of books like Stolen (Christopher) and Forbidden (Suzuma) enjoying this one quite a bit, as well, as it tackles a heavy issue while developing a fantastically sympathetic lead character. This is a book that will have easy crossover appeal to adult readers, as well, especially those who like books in the same vein as Tom Perrotta.
Even though it’s a heavy book, it is balanced with the right amount of humor, too, making it one of those books that perfectly toys with the reader’s mind and emotions.
Galley received from the publisher. The Babysitter Murders will be published July 26.