Classic folk tales retold, innovatively illustrated

Story telling goes back to the beginning of civilization. The old tales, first passed along orally then gradually written down, are still a popular genre with today's children.Youngsters often identify with the ''underdog'' hero or heroine who, as a result of qualities like kindness and obedience - and sometimes with the help of a sprinkle of magic - triumph over evil.

Volumes of collected folk tales are readily available now, representing almost every country in the world, but the single tale, in a well-illustrated book, is still a perennial favorite.

In Lorinda Bryan Cauley's retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk (New York: G. G. Putnam's Sons. $10.95. Ages 6-8.) the author combines both brilliantly colored and black-and-white illustrations to enhance the tale. Each double-page spread features a full-page colored painting, while the facing page displays the text and a transitional sketch that helps move the story along. This new version of one of the best-known tales will to delight any child.

Elizabeth Isele retells the traditional Russian tale, The Frog Princess (Illustrated by Michael Hague. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell. $10.95. Ages 8-12.) in words that make the complicated story more accessible to young readers.

It's the story of the Czar who tells each of three sons to go beyond the palace walls and shoot an arrow into the sky. The princes will marry whoever finds the arrows. The older brothers are married right away. But the youngest, Ivan, has to search three days before he finds his arrow, and he finds it in the mouth of a frog. Unhappily, he has to marry the frog.

When the Czar decides to test the sewing skills of the three brides, the frog secretly changes into a princess, Vasilia the Wise, and commands her maidens to sew a fine garment. The Czar devises two more tests in which the frog princess surpasses her sisters-in-law. Ivan suddenly realizes who she is and destroys the frog skin so the princess can't return to it. Hovever, still in bondage to a previous spell, the princess is turned into a blue dove and flies away.

The story continues with Ivan's search for his princess. He's aided by a vixen and other animals whom he meets and treats in a kindly manner along the way. By the end of the story Ivan finds the princess. They overcome many obstacles to return to the Czar's castle and inherit the kingdom.

Michael Hague's illustrations grow out of traditional Russian art and costume to contribute authenticity to this telling.

A second Russian tale, The Firebird, (Illustrated by Moira Kemp. Boston: David R. Godine. $10.95. Ages 9-12.) has a longer text and is accompanied by fewer finely detailed and brilliantly colored pictures. Once more the tale centers on a ruler with three sons. When the older two fail to find out who is stealing apples from the garden, the youngest succeeds. He spots the Firebird, grabs for it, loses it, and goes to look for it.

The youngest son willingly shares his food with a fox who subquently helps him. On the way to capture the Firebird adventures go smoothly when the prince obeys the vixen's advice and go awry when he isn't obedient. By the end the young prince finds not only the Firebird, but a princess with golden hair, and a horse with a golden mane.

The Month-Brothers (Retold by Samuel Marshak, translated by Thomas P. Whitney , illustrated by Diane Stanley. New York: Wm. Morrow & Co., Inc. $10.95. Ages 7- 10.) is a wicked-stepmother tale - this one is set in Bohemia. Diane Stanley's delightfully authentic full-page illustrations accompany the story.

It is said that long ago a girl was sent out into a midwinter snowstorm to gather Snowdrops (flowers) for her pampered stepsister's birthday. The quest seems hopeless, but the girl obeys. She comes upon a group of 12 men and boys in a clearing in the woods who represent the months of the year. When they hear the girl's sad story they decide to help her. They set aside the usual sequence of the months and instantly, March appears and the ground is covered with Snowdrops. The girl gathers the flowers and takes them home.

When the greedy stepmother hears the remarkable story, she sends her own daughter out into the snow to ask the Month Brothers for delicious sweet tasting fruits from the summer months. Time passes and the stepmother goes out to look for her daughter and they both perish in the cold.

Naturally, the stepdaughter lives a long happy life at the edge of the forest surrounded by a wonderful garden which bears fruit earlier than any other place. And it is said, ''That woman has all the months of the year as her guests.''

Yes, that's the way folk tales end.

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