BRIGHTENING the shelves of bookstores this holiday season is a potpourri of delightful folk tales, richly illustrated and representing a variety of cultures. From the Orient to Scandinavia to America, old tales and new offer universal truths that span differences in culture, age, and geography. The Tongue-cut Sparrow, retold by Monoko Ishii, translated from the Japanese by author and critic Katherine Paterson, and illustrated by Suekichi Akaba (Lodestar Books/E.P. Dutton, New York, $13.95, 40 pp., ages 3 to 8), is a softer version of one of the best-known Japanese folk tales. This version, reminiscent of the Grimms' ``Mother Holle,'' in which two daughters respond oppositely to the same three demands and receive appropriate rewards, characterizes the individual responses of a childless, elderly couple to a trio of tasks. The old man's loving attention to a little sparrow arouses envy in the old woman, who, in his absence, snips the sparrow's tongue, frightening it away. In his quest to find the bird, the old man humbly does all that is asked of him and receives a treasure from the sparrow. Poetic justice reigns when the old woman's greedy attempt to gain the same reward brings an unexpected outcome.
Young listeners will delight in rolling over their own tongues such onomatopoeic Japanese words as binga binga and suru suru, which Paterson thoughtfully retained to add flavor to her English translation. Nine such phrases are glossed at the end of the story.
Akaba's line drawings with touches of red, black, gold, silver, and turquoise balance and harmonize with the text.
Also from Japan, Fox's Dream, written and illustrated by Keizaburo Tejima and translated by Susan Matsui (Philomel Books, New York, $13.95, 38 pp., ages 2 to 6), is an enchanting winter-season picture book. Tejima's brief story of a lonely young fox that envisions and finds companionship is enhanced by double-spread, full-page tempera illustrations that have the appearance of woodcuts. The fox's visions in the ice forest are particularly beautiful.
From another part of the Orient - via Denmark - comes The Princess and the Sun, Moon and Stars, a classic Chinese folk tale retold by Bjarne Reuter, illustrated by Svend Otto S., and translated from the Danish by children's book author and translator Joan Tate (Viking Penguin, New York, $9.95, 24 pp., ages 3 to 8). This clever variation on the poor soldier who outwits three royal suitors to gain the princess's hand incorporates an increasingly difficult triad of trials as the soldier bears messages to the princes of the Far, Farther, and Farthest Far Countries. But it is the Princess herself who brings about the happy resolution of the tale by her refusal to marry the Prince of Darkness.
Exquisite watercolors by Hans Christian Andersen Award-winning illustrator Svend Otto S. are a feast for the eyes, with their attention to details of classic Chinese costume and architecture.
Another charming variation on the motif of the least likely candidate's achieving the reward may be found in Swedish storyteller and illustrator Tord Nygren's Fiddler and His Brothers (William Morrow, New York, $11.75, 28 pp., ages 3 to 8). Confronted with three seemingly impossible tasks and two formidable witches, Fiddler, the youngest but cleverest of three brothers, regains lost property for king, queen, and princess, thereby winning for himself fields and meadows, house, and bride.
Nygren's watercolors reflect mountains and fjords and a genuine delight in people - as the expressions on his characters' faces reveal. Who could fear any witch who makes such a face when tasting over-salted porridge?
Rounding out this medley of tales is Diane Goode's retelling and illustrating of Julian Hawthorne's Rumpty-Dudget's Tower (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, $11.95, 42 pp. ages 4 to 10). The original ``Rumpty-Dudget's Tower: A Fairy Tale'' was published in 1879 in Hawthorne's ``Yellow Cap and Other Fairy Stories for Children'' and appeared in its first illustrated version in 1924. It is considered one of the best stories by this only son of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Goode retains a mildly Puritanical flavor. Prince Frank and Princess Hilda heed the admonishments of their elders to free their little brother, Prince Henry, from the clutches of Rumpty-Dudget, a little gray dwarf who finally disappears when all the mischief is squeezed out of him. With its emphasis on obedience and good behavior, ``Rumpty-Dudget's Tower'' hints to its young listeners and readers something of what growing up is all about.
The story's didacticism is softened by Goode's playful illustrations. Rumpty-Dudget's grin is ingratiating, and the children's round faces bespeak innocence even when their behavior is at its most mischievous. Goode herself has mischievously portrayed the children's mother and queen with the unmistakable features of Britain's Princess of Wales. The Victorian costumes and setting are appropriate in Goode's delightful rendering of Hawthorne's classic.
Helen Borgens teaches writing about children's literature in the English Department at San Diego State University.