For younger readers. Folk tales from foreign lands

Bimwili and the Zimwi, by Verna Aardema, illustrated by Susan Meddaugh. New York: Dial Press. 32 pp. $10.95 Tagging along behind her two big sisters on the way to the sea is all enchantment for little Bimwili: multicolored parrots; a lush, sultry jungle; and the swamps alive with the ``wurrr, wurrr, wurrr of frogs.'' But at the beach Bimwili meets the ugly Zimwi, an ogre with a face like a shrunken gourd. This evil, snakish old man beguiles the girl into his huge drum. Bimwili is forced to be a singing drum throughout the surrounding villages. For a time, the awful Zimwi wins glory and fame. But Bimwili prove s that good is not helpless as she defeats the ogre at his own game.

Aardema gives readers a prizewinning retelling of an African folk tale. Captivating and full of wit, her prose begs to be read aloud. Her capable illustrations are equally commendable. Once There Were No Pandas, by Margaret Greaves. Illustrated by Beverley Gooding. New York: E. P. Dutton Inc. 32 pp. $11.95.

According to this compelling Chinese legend, it is because of a little peasant girl, Chien-min, that panda bears come to be. One day, upon getting lost in the forest close to her home, she hears the whimpering of a very small white cub. He has a thorn stuck in his paw. Running to him, she says, ``Don't cry! I'll help you.'' The little bear responds immediately to her loving compassion and rubs his head against her hands. A deep friendship evolves, until one day a vicious leopard attacks the little cub. Chien-min hurls a huge stone at the attacker and loses her life to save him. The mourning of all the white bears, north, south, west, and east, causes black splotches to appear on their coats -- a paradox of beauty tainted by grief.

On one level, the loss of life seems astonishing and morbid, but viewed another way, one individual's selfless giving changes something for all time. The Hedgehog Boy, by Jane Langton. Illustrated by Ilse Plume. New York: Harper & Row. 40 pp. $11.95.

Set in Latvia in the medieval days of field and castle, the story line unfolds along an unwavering course, emphasizing that quality which underlies all virtues -- fidelity. The reader first meets an old farmer and his wife who long for a child to inherit their beloved farm. One day the farmer comes across the Forest Mother, who gives him a basket and demands that he not look into it for three days. The couple are sorely tempted, but they keep their word. On the final day they receive their reward, a bab y. But this is no ordinary baby: It is covered with prickles like a hedgehog. Nevertheless, their commitment to the baby is preeminent and firm.

When he becomes a boy, still covered with fur, we learn that his mind ``was as sharp as his prickles, and he was cheerful and trustworthy.'' This, we find, is the redemptive essence of his life.

In part it is simply a romantic story of the love between an impulsive princess and a prickly ``pincushion'' of a boy. But it is also an intricate tale -- a tapestry of virtues and values.

The book's illustrations reflect the traditional dyes obtained from natural sources, and the borders and costumes aptly depict Latvian agrarian culture.

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