Girl with a Pearl Earring, from What Was it Like to Be Her - by Becky Kimball, LitWits Workshops

What Was it Like to Be Her?

by Becky

Jenny’s been reading Lady’s Maid, which got me thinking about the wonder of curiosity.

History and literature are full of caricatures, aren’t they? The Queen, The Servant Girl, The Slave, The Cook, The Princess, The Pioneer . . . Each title brings with it a little vignette in our minds, like it or not. We can’t help it! Some are snapshots in full color, others are cartoonish outlines with exaggerated features. We’ve drawn them from children’s stories, movies, museums, text books, and each of us has created a big scrapbook of impressions we carry around in our heads.

In my mental scrapbook, for instance, The Queen is obviously, ostentatiously royal. She wears silk, is surrounded by servants, sleeps in a humongous canopy bed slung all about with velvet and brocade. She wanders through manicured gardens, gives expansive orders. Sound about right? The Servant Boy, by charming contrast, has smudges on his cheeks and wears rough clothing. He’s poorly shod and needs a haircut. Pioneer Woman has a sunbonnet on, rough hands from hoeing and such, and eats a lot of pork products and cornmeal. She wears faded cotton.


But behind these stereotypes and caricatures are lives. Eating, sweating, breathing, dream-filled and driven lives. Even fictional characters have between-the-lines experiences, don’t they? What do they do when the author’s pen begins to sketch someone else’s scene, or the camera of history turns away? 

This curiosity is what led to my “What was it like to be her?” phase, curing which I devoured Lady’s Maid, about the servant of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Girl with a Pearl Earring, about the girl who modeled for Vermeer’s famous painting; Memoirs of a Geisha (self-explanatory); and one of the many biographical novels about the last empress of China, the name of which I can’t recall. I really wanted to know what these women did with the corners of their days. What they thought about, how they felt, what sort of routines framed their existence.

And this curiosity, which all of us have, is what makes reading and learning with kids so much fun. Asking “What was it like to be Tom Sawyer?” leads us to a hands-on exploration of his favorite toys, the things he ate, the way he spoke. Wondering “What was it like to be Sara Crewe… or Johnny Tremain, or Black Beauty” draws us into a place where that one curious question leads to a swarm of others, and asking and learning and understanding all happen together. The storming of the Bastille, life on a Swiss mountainside with Grandfather, being marooned on an island . . . what was THAT like?

Curiosity fattens up those mental scrapbooks with empathy, compassion, and imagination. It requires us to unloose the bindings so we can add more pages and include more sensory input. Pretty soon our scrapbooks don’t hold just caricatures, but vials of scents, stacks of fabric swatches, and giant, fold-out timelines and pop-up figures. Even, if we get REALLY curious, living, breathing people!

“Curiouser and curiouser…” cried Alice, as Wonderland began to work its magic. And curiouser and curiouser may we become, teaching our kids how fun it is to wonder, and how rich life is when we don’t forget to ask, “So . . . What was THAT like?”

What are you or your kids most curious about as you read? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the Comments section, below.

Jenny Walicek

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