Open Windows On the World

ASIDE from actually living abroad, one of the best ways for a child to soak up another culture is through literature. Although television and film can impart impressive visual imprints, nothing beats a book for allowing a child to climb into another's shoes and experience the history, traditions, sights, and sounds of a foreign land. If properly steeped in such a heady brew, children can't help but emerge as adults with a broadened image of the world in which they live, a more elastic tolerance, and a lively curiosity about other people.

A number of new titles offer children and young adults glimpses of other cultures, other lives. Those selected here include age ranges that identify the children for whom the books may be most appealing, either as reading or listening experiences.

Our first stop is the Soviet Union. Face to Face: A Collection of Stories by Soviet and American writers (New York: Philomel Books, $15.95, ages 10 and up) was published simultaneously in the United States and the Soviet Union. The level of writing in these short stories and book excerpts is superb - not surprising, considering that the editors tapped such luminaries as Virginia Hamilton, the late Scott O'Dell, and Katherine Paterson, as well as a group of distinguished Soviet writers.

The stories span a wide range of topics, from life in urban America to black folklore to the rich heritages of Latvia, Lithuania, and Azerbaijan. Kudos to editors Thomas Pettepiece and Anatoly Aleksin, as well as the many others involved in this joint production.

We recross the Atlantic now, to Canada. In Arctic Memories (New York: Henry Holt, $15.95, ages 8 and up), Inuit artist Normee Ekoomiak recalls his childhood in Cape Jones, Quebec. Sleeping in an ``iglu,'' ice fishing, traditional games - Ekoomiak reveals many aspects of daily life for the Inuit people through words (both English and Inuktitut) and artwork, including acrylic paintings and striking embroidered applique wall hangings. It's a vivid, if brief, glimpse of a rapidly disappearing way of life.

Leaving the cold behind, we travel south to the Caribbean islands with poet Grace Nichols, a native of Guyana who now lives in England. Nichols summons the cadences of the Caribbean in Come Into My Tropical Garden (New York: J.B. Lippincott, $10.95, ages 7 to 11). The people, the customs, the countryside, all are captured in her joyous verse - ``Play moonlight/ and the red crabs dance/ their sideways dance/ to the soft-sea beat.'' Caroline Binch's soft black-and-white sketches contribute to this celebration of island life.

On the opposite side of the Caribbean, a young Colombian boy and an American visitor team up to search for sunken pirate treasure. Sarita Kendall's The Bell Reef (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, $13.95, 8 and up) serves an exotic mix of intrigue, local history, and dolphin lore, set on an island near Cartagena. Although the writing is uneven, Kendall nevertheless captivates with this well-plotted tale.

Criss-crossing the Atlantic once again, we arrive at a small village in Malawi, Africa. Karen Lynn Williams taught for several years in this region, and her story of Galimoto (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, $12.95, ages 5 to 8) is the result. Galimoto is the Chichewa word for ``car,'' and it also refers to a small push-toy children fashion from materials like wire, sticks, and cornstalks. Seven-year-old Kondi is determined to make a galimoto for himself, and spends the day prowling his village in search of wire for the toy. By nightfall, Kondi is finished and joins the other village children for a triumphant moonlit parade. Catherine Stock's tranquil watercolors contribute to this affectionate look at village life.

A very different Africa is portrayed in Beverly Naidoo's Chain of Fire, (New York: J.B. Lippincott, $12.95, 11 and up). Naidoo, who is white, was raised in South Africa, and in an afterword to this novel writes of her intense anger at ``the racist distortions of reality passed on to me as a child.'' This book, which takes an unflinching look at one of the grimmer aspects of apartheid - the forced relocation of blacks to ``homelands'' - continues the story of young Naledi and her family (last seen in Naidoo's award-winning ``Journey to Jo'Burg''). Stunned by the news of the pending relocation, Naledi, who is now 15, joins with classmates at her village school to organize a peaceful demonstration. The march's tragic results make for a very moving story.

Traveling east, we move on to present-day Pakistan. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, by Suzanne Fisher Staples (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, $13.95, ages 12 and up), is a sensitively drawn coming-of-age story set in the scorching Cholistan Desert. Shabanu is a spunky 11-year-old tomboy, and through her eyes, readers experience first-hand desert life in all its harshness and beauty. The story explodes with color and drama, whether describing the Sibi Fair where camels are sold and fortunes are made, the elaborate preparations for a Muslim wedding, or blinding sand storms.

When Shabanu reaches puberty, her parents, in keeping with nomadic tradition, arrange a marriage for her with a much older man, and Shabanu is forced to choose between tradition and her own desires. It's an extraordinary story, one that enfolds readers completely in an unfamiliar culture, and the top-notch writing garnered first-time novelist Staples, a former United Press International correspondent in Asia, a Newbery runner-up award.

On to China. Translator and illustrator Ed Young, who grew up in Shanghai, won the 1990 Caldecott Medal for Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China (New York: Philomel, $14.95, ages 5 to 9). In this intriguing variation of a classic fairy tale, Shang, Tao, and Paotze, three little girls from northern China, outwit a wily wolf. Young's impressionistic artwork is strikingly original. Parents take note: the images of Lon Po Po (``granny wolf'') are truly eerie, and the youngest readers might appreciate this story best in broad daylight rather than as bedtime fare.

Another Chinese folktale, The Seven Chinese Brothers (New York: Scholastic, $12.95, ages 4 to 8), is a story familiar to many elementary school-age children. It's hard to imagine how Claire Bishop's 1938 version (``The Five Chinese Brothers'') could be improved upon. But Margaret Mahy's retelling stands in its own right. It's based on source material provided by Asian specialists at the Library of Congress and rooted firmly in a historical setting - the reign of Emperor Ch'in Shih Huang, who initiated construction on the Great Wall. The folktale relates how seven identical brothers, each of whom possesses a special power, band together to thwart the cruel emperor. Jean and Mou-sien Tseng's brilliant watercolors breathe new life into this ancient legend.

Move southwest now, to Thailand. In Rice Without Rain (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, $12.95, 12 and up), Minfong Ho weaves some of the events leading up to the 1976 massacre at Thammasart University into a bittersweet love story.

Jinda lives with her family in a drought-stricken village where half the rice crop is traditionally given to an absentee landlord. With villagers literally starving to death (including Jinda's infant nephew), a university student's suggestion that they resist this unjust practice finds a ready audience. Jinda's father is arrested and imprisoned for his part in the protest, and Jinda travels to Bangkok to try to gain his release. There, in one of the more searing passages in the novel, she witnesses the brutal attack on the students.

Ho doesn't shrink from her subject matter (Jinda at one point assists her sister in childbirth), and the result is a powerful, gripping tale. It's a slice of history most young adults don't learn about in the classroom, and one with parallels to last year's Tiananmen Square events in China. A thoughtful foreword gives some historical and political background.

Our final stop is New Zealand, where opera diva Kiri Te Kanawa segues into the world of children's literature with Land of the Long White Cloud: Maori Myths, Tales and Legends (New York: Arcade, $16.95, ages 8 and up). Dame Kiri opted for a conversational style in this very personal selection of stories she recalls from her girlhood (she's half Maori), and although the folklore loses some of its resonance thereby, it's nevertheless an impressive debut, and a valuable addition to any shelf of ethnic lore. Michael Foreman's lyrical illustrations are suffused with light, and provide a compelling backdrop for the unusual stories.

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