ONCE described as a "melting pot," the United States is referred to more often these days as a "salad bowl" or a "stew pot." The following recently published books celebrate the richness of cultural diversity suggested by that revised description. Picture books
A pair of unusual mermaid tales combine folklore and art. For Sukey and the Mermaid (Four Winds, $14.95, ages 5 to 8), Robert D. San Souci dipped into South Carolina Sea Island lore and emerged with this gem of a tale of a girl's encounter with a mermaid who helps her triumph over difficult circumstances. San Souci is a storyteller par excellence, and his tale's lilting African-Caribbean cadences are perfectly matched by the powerful grace of Brian Pinkney's scratchboard illustrations.
Mexican poet Alberto Blanco serves up an original folk tale set in the Sonora Desert in The Desert Mermaid/La Sirena del Desierto (Children's Book Press, $13.95, ages 5 to 12). Accompanied by artist Patricia Revah's vibrant needlepoint tapestries, this bilingual story relates a lonely mermaid's trek from her desert oasis back to the sea. Along the way, she relearns the forgotten songs of her people. Though occasionally heavy-handed, the story has a thoughtful message about the importance of art.
The scene shifts to the Louisiana bayou for Patricia C. McKissack's A Million Fish ... More or Less (Alfred A. Knopf, $14, ages 4 to 8). This outrageous tall tale features an African-American boy named Hugh Thomas who, after an extraordinarily successful fishing trip, ends up nearly empty-handed except for a whopper about the ones that got away. The bold strokes and larger-than-life style of Dena Schutzer's sunny paintings reflect the exuberance of McKissack's yarn.
Treasure Nap (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95, ages 4 to 8), Juanita Havill's affirmation of the sweet continuity of family life, is really a story within a story. When Alicia asks for her favorite family tale, her mother relates how Alicia's great-grandmother was given three special things (a serape, a pito or wooden recorder, and a bird cage) during a visit to her grandfather in the mountains of Mexico. She describes how she then brought this "treasure" to the United States. Later, Alicia is allowed to open t he trunk and play with her great-grandmother's things - after all, her mother says, "It's your treasure, too." Echoing the story's shift from present-day to the Mexican village of long ago, Elivia Savadier's watercolors vary from gentle pastels to brightly bordered pages and a vivid folk-art style.
In a trio of photo essays, photographer Susan Kuklin records the lives of three children - Sanu, an African-American girl, Eric, a Hispanic-American boy, and April, an Asian-American girl. First-person text and abundant photographs give How My Family Lives in America (Bradbury, $13.95, ages 4 to 8) a sense of immediacy and make this an especially welcome introduction to diverse cultural and ethnic traditions.
Drawing on his Abenaki heritage, storyteller Joseph Bruchac teams up with Jonathan London for Thirteen Moons on Turtle's Back (Philomel, $15.95, all ages), a series of poems based on a variety of American Indian myths about the 13 moons of the year. Thomas Locker's sweeping landscapes provide an exquisite backdrop.
Another native-American legend, this one Canadian Inuit, is woven into Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak's Hide and Sneak (Annick Press, $4.95 paper, ages 4 to 7). Allashua is warned by her mother of the Ijiraq, a creature that loves to hide little children so they're never found again.
How Allashua outwits the sprite and relies on an inuksugaq (a landmark of rocks in the shape of a man) to find her way home makes for a satisfying tale. Elaborate woodcuts border Vladyana Krykorka's colorful, expressive illustrations. For older readers
Sixth-grader Koya doesn't like to make waves. But she learns some lessons about sticking up for what's right in Eloise Greenfield's Koya Delaney and the Good Girl Blues (Scholastic, $13.95, ages 8 to 12). Well-crafted and buoyantly humorous, this warm evocation of African-American family life boasts a cast of characters firmly grounded in reality.
The engrossing story finds Koya negotiating the entanglements of friendship and family loyalty in a double-Dutch jump-rope competition, as well as the difficulties that arise when Koya's cousin Delbert, a famous pop star, comes to town.
What could be worse than being tone-deaf in a family of musical geniuses? Finding you're a natural at baseball in a family where sports aren't appreciated, perhaps. In Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear (Joy Street, $13.95, ages 8 to 12), Beijing-born Lensey Namioka offers a hilarious story of an immigrant boy scrambling to adjust to the quirks of his new country, as well as trying to carve out a niche for himself in his family.
In Taking Sides, by Gary Soto (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $15.95, ages 8 to 12), young Lincoln Mendoza finds the transition from barrio to suburb a challenging one. Scheduled to play against his friends on his former junior high basketball team, and faced with a new coach who is finding it hard to mask his prejudice, this Latino youth has some tough lessons to learn. Soto gracefully weaves Spanish words and phrases into this fast-paced novel, giving it an added ring of authenticity.
Through poems and essays, young writers pour out their hearts in Rising Voices: Writings of Young Native Americans, selected by Arlene B. Hirschfelder and Beverly R. Singer (Charles Scribner's Sons, $12.95, ages 10 and up).
Drawn mainly from classroom writing assignments, the book is divided topically into sections such as "Family," "Education," and "Homelands."
Each section is preceded by a brief introduction that provides historical information about native Americans in the United States. Strong, impassioned, insightful - these particular voices are rarely heard in children's books, and they deserve an encore.
With two books under his belt over the past few months, Walter Dean Myers, an outspoken champion of literacy who only half-jokingly proposes tax credits for parents who read to their children, once again demonstrates his versatility and strength as a writer.
Now is Your Time! The African-American Struggle for Freedom (HarperCollins, $17.95, ages 11 and up) is a superb work of nonfiction that charts the history of blacks in the United States from the beginnings of the slave trade through the civil-rights movement.
Illustrated with an abundance of photographs and enriched by the added poignance of Myers's own personal search for his family's roots, this is history at its most lively and vigorous.
In Somewhere in the Darkness (Scholastic, $14.95, ages 12 and up), Myers focuses on a thorny father-son relationship. Fourteen-year-old Jimmy Little lives with his grandmother, and when his father, Crab, shows up - a man he hasn't seen since he was a baby, a man who has been in prison for murder - Jimmy is none to eager to go off with him.
But go off with him he does, and what is supposed to be a short hop to a new life in Chicago turns into a much longer trip as Crab makes a last-ditch effort to connect with his son and clear his name. This is an intensely felt and beautifully written exploration of family and of the redeeming power of love.