Tales of enchantment. Drama and fantasy in rich folk tradition

RICHLY fed by the stream of a common humanity, folk literature from many cultures exhibits amazing similarities. Trickster animals, Cinderellas, brothers and sisters who come in sets of threes, wise old men and women - all these characters parade through folk tales, speaking their respective languages yet saying many of the same things. This season sees the publication of four stunning new versions of not-so-familiar folk tales. Although the characters come from distinctly different backgrounds, they tell us ageless truths.

The Enchanted Book, by Janina Porazinska, translated by Bozena Smith and illustrated by Jan Brett (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, $12.95, 32 pp., ages 5-9) is subtitled ``A Tale From Krakow.'' The story revolves around three daughters, the youngest of whom is the most virtuous. She alone has the wits to foil the evil enchanter who threatens the family. Especially striking in this story, which echoes so many other familiar tales, is the female protagonist.

Jan Brett's lovely, brightly colored illustrations were inspired by Polish paper cuts and folk motifs.

A Chinese folk tale retold by Robert D. San Souci echoes some of the same themes, but with a wholly different artistic treatment. The Enchanted Tapestry, illustrated by Laszlo Gal (Dial, New York, $11.95, 26 pp., ages 4-8), concerns a mother with three sons who earns a living by weaving. Yet she puts aside her menial duties to complete a beautiful tapestry, which is important to her as a personal statement: ``This tapestry is a picture of everything I hold dear in my dreams and my life.'' Because of their selfishness, lack of patience, and lack of appreciation for their mother's individual accomplishment, the two older sons do not find themselves illustrated in the marvelous tapestry. It truly is enchanted, and in the end saves the mother and her youngest son from the retribution of the two angry brothers. The illustrations are delicately colored and stylized.

Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, by the talented black author-illustrator John Steptoe (Lothrop, New York, $13, 32 pp., ages 5-8), is a bold version of an African folk tale dedicated to ``the children of South Africa.'' Two daughters of the nobleman Mufaro seek out a young prince when he comes to visit. Each daughter is tempted, in the style of Grimm's King Thrushbeard, by royalty who assume various guises to test their worthiness. It is the younger daughter who demonstrates her true nobility and wins the prince.

Steptoe's art is bold, realistic, and haunting. His contemporary characters have a simple dignity.

Another addition to this season's folklore is Julius Lester's retelling of The Tales of Uncle Remus, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Dial, New York, $15, 176 pp., all ages). Since journalist Joel Chandler Harris wrote his version of these Afro-American tales during the mid-19th century, generations of children have loved the stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and a gallery of other talkative animals. After all, they are earthy, wildly funny, and affectionate tales. And as Julius Lester writes in the foreword to this new book, ``What is a tale except a means of expressing love for this experience we call being human.''

These stories are echoes of old slave tales, and it's been suggested that they may have originated in Africa, even Brazil. Harris's version was written in black dialect and is considered by many to be the definitive version, even though it posed problems for some readers. This new version (the first of two proposed volumes) contains 48 of the tales retold in ``modified contemporary Southern black English.'' Lester's updated story - with casual references to shopping malls, laundromats, and 747s - is respectful of the stories and the sound of the text.

Jerry Pinkney has contributed fine illustrations to the book, some of which open up into full-color spreads. Childlike and restrained, they may indeed become the definitive Uncle Remus illustrations.

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