Araminta's Paint Box
by Karen Ackerman. Illustrated by Betsy Lewin. (Atheneum, 1998. ISBN 0689820917. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Grades 1-3.
The title page gives us some hint of the fact that Araminta and her paint box are each going to make it to the west coast, but by divergent routes: a map with key shows us each route. We also see, on the same title page, Araminta holding a gaily decorated box and a paint brush. Thus intrigued, we read further to find out that Doctor Darling, his wife Emilia and young daughter Araminta have decided to leave a thriving medical practice in Boston to take a position as the first doctor in a California town, in 1847.
The journey starts with the loading of the covered wagon, drawn by two draft horses. The first rest stop is Scranton and a reunion with Doctor Darling's brother whom he hasn't seen for ten years. It is that uncle who gives Araminta the paint box, a thing of beauty in and of itself, but containing paint, quills, brushes and a thick roll of drawing paper. Araminta is thrilled and paints daily while crossing Pennsylvania. When the wagon strikes a boulder, the paint box, among other things, is thrown from the wagon and, in the excitement and travail of fixing the wagon, the paint box is not missed until the family has gone too far to go back for it.
The Mennonite family that finds the box uses the paint to stencil their home and the husband uses the box to carry his carpenter tools. At a barn raising, the box is inadvertently placed in a stage coach bound for Illinois. At Springfield, Illinois the box is placed on a riverboat and taken to a dock where the Mississippi meets the Missouri River where it is confiscated by a young wife bound for Bent's Fort, intending to use it as a bassinet. Before she can use it, the box is off again and crosses the Rockies to Salt Lake City on horseback, carried by Elijah Callagher who gives it to a prospector headed for California to look for gold. He strikes gold and carries some nuggets in the box to town to file claim on his land but is bitten by a snake on the way. He gets to town and collapses at the doctor's office and the doctor (you guessed it) is Doctor Darling who intends to use the box as a paint box for his young daughter, Araminta.
Things to Talk About and Notice
- We don't know how long the journeys took, but we can speculate, knowing the routes and the vehicles used. Each person whose journey we pick up has a different reason for heading west. Were there other reasons?
- From paint box to paint box, that box has many different uses. List them and then speculate on other possible uses for that time for that box.
- It's a long journey and, obviously, can be used for map skills. We know from the title page map of Araminta's journey, but the text leaves her in Pennsylvania and picks her up again in California. The text covers the journey of the paint box. We can rewrite the story with a different route, different owners and different uses. We can alter the destination. We can alter the time. What would be the journeys and vehicles today?
- There are many historical and geographical allusions here: riverboats, the Mexican War, wagon trains, various settlements and rivers, The Continental Divide, various quilting patterns. Any of them can be points of departure for you and the class or for individual readers.
- The original paint box bears careful examination. The paint supplies, while similar to those we use today, must have been made of different materials than we have. The Pennsylvania wife does stenciling with them and the patterns and techniques of stenciling are worth trying.
- The role of the doctor of the time can contrast nicely with a doctor's role in today's world. Not many of them get to treat snakebite anymore. The religious people in the book: her uncle the minister, the Mennonites, the Mormons can lead to a totally different exploration including the role of religious views in the settling of our country from east to west coast.
- There are many opportunities to stop and look around during the journeys here. When the family and box are in Pennsylvania, the book talks about the Mennonites and the barn raising. That may lead to a sidestep to the culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch. You might like to read The Three Brothers by Carolyn Croll (Putnam, 1991 ISBN 0-399-22195-6.) This folktale is set in Pennsylvania Dutch country and contains much reference to its culture.
- You can't leave the story without talking about coincidences, for surely it's a great coincidence that Araminta and her paint box should end up in the same place at the same time, given all the possible alternatives. Are there other books with such coincidences? The one that springs to mind is David Lyons' Runaway Duck (Mulberry, 1985 ISBN 0-688-07334-4.) This is also a journey tale; in this case, a toy duck which ends up in France. There are many parallels but it's the coincidences that are the most striking in both books. Can you write other such stories? Do you know of other real coincidences: people who are far from home and meet a neighbor? What a coincidence! Isn't it a small world?
- Grasshopper Summer by Ann Turner. This book, set soon after the Civil War, gives an intimate look at the lives of those involved in the Westward Movement.
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- Old Sturbridge Village located in Massachusetts has an extensive web site with photos of their personnel going about daily life in the 1830's. It's a decade early for this book and illustrates established settlements not the Westward movement. But it's a good place to get a feel for the time.