Compassion-fostering stories. Through the eyes of South African children

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Children are readily sympathetic; compassion, however, is a deeper emotion. It occurs when one human being actually thinks and feels with another and wants to help. These children's books foster compassion by allowing young readers to enter vicariously into the experiences of others. The compassion-fostering, consciousness-raising qualities of these new children's books set in South Africa make them very significant indeed. Journey to Jo'burg: A South African Story, by Beverley Naidoo. Illustrated by Eric Velasquez. New York: Lippincott Junior Books. 96 pp. $9.95. (Ages 9-12.) When her grandmother and aunt seem unable to cure her baby sister's prolonged illness, 13-year-old Naledi is galvanized into action. She enlists her nine-year-old brother's help in devising a plan to walk 300 kilometers (180 miles) to Johannesburg to fetch their mother, who works there as a domestic servant. With no resources except two sweet potatoes, a bottle of water, and determination, the children slip away from home and embark on a foolhardy, dangerous, but ultimately successful expedition.

Their adventures gradually reveal small and blatant injustices of apartheid to the innocent but perceptive Naledi. Although she gratefully relinquishes family responsibilities to her mother at the end of their journey, she is determined not to relinquish her awakened sense of responsibility to the victims of apartheid. Through a fascinating, well-told story, the author conducts her protagonist on a figurative as well as literal journey. Naledi ends with her mind and heart in a new place -- and so will the reader. Not So Fast Songololo, by Niki Daly. New York: Atheneum. Unnumbered. $11.95. (Ages 3-8.)

``Songololo'' is Gogo's special name for her small grandson, Malusi. Large, lame, and old, Gogo needs help shopping in the city, and Malusi is drafted, much to his delight. Although Malusi's hand-me-down sneakers (called ``tackies'' in South Africa) are full of holes, asking for the elegant tackies -- red with white stripes -- that he spies in a store window never enters his mind. Young as he is, he recognizes the terrible condition of his grandmother's shoes, the concern with which she makes her small purchases, and the care with which she pins her money in her sleeve. These subtle details lend power to the climax and reveal the sacrificial nature of Gogo's gift.

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Depicted in watercolor and marker, the body language and facial expressions of the main characters stand out against white backgrounds. Extending the story (showing the segregated nature of the bus ride, for example), the illustrations are emotionally expressive and utterly delightful. This picture book will be cherished by young children, who will not only relish the loving relationship and the happy ending, but will also sense that it possesses deeper layers of meaning. The Secret of the Mountain, by Esther Linfield. New York: Greenwillow. 144 pp. $10.25. (Ages 12 and up.)

At age 15, Anta, the son and heir of the African chieftain Khwane, is an experienced cow herder. He is not experienced enough, however, to prevent men from a rival tribe from stealing six of his father's cows. Uninitiated into manhood, Anta cannot fight in the battle instigated by this theft. His older half brother, Diko, whom he intensely admires, can and does fight. Diko does not return his younger brother's affection. He is profoundly jealous because Anta, whose mother is a royal princess, is destined to become the next chieftain -- provided he lives.

Without written histories, many of the old life styles of African tribes are simply vanishing. Set in a deliberately vague past in the hill country of southeastern Africa, Esther Linfield's story of the Xhosa people has a timeless, sun-beaten quality. It also possesses broad appeal through its ancient human themes. Presented in matter-of-fact prose, the thoughts and behavior of members of an exotic culture seem not only natural but proper.

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