Birds, beggars - and golden eggs. Fables old and new

FOUR recently published books include old favorites in new dress and original tales based on familiar themes. King of the Birds (Thomas Y. Crowell, New York, 32 pp., $12.95, ages 3 to 8) is Shirley Climo's vibrant version of the popular legend of how the birds choose a king. Its epigraph - ``Come and make your offering/ To the smallest, yet the king,'' from an old Welsh song about wrens - sets the tone for this charming explanation of why particular species of birds have certain characteristics and how the different species came to live in various parts of the earth.

Climo's style matches the quick pace of her feathered subjects and is guaranteed to evoke smiles and tender feelings from readers of all ages. At the same time, Climo sharpens the timeless messages in this gracefully retold fable. As Old Mother Owl replies to the birds who criticize Wren's success, ``He used his brain.... One who can do that deserves to rule.'' And when Wren describes what he has seen on his flight to the sun, he causes beaks and bills to snap shut when he declares, ``Our earth is ... an egg!'' - and then to drop open when he explains, ``The earth-egg is SO big ... that every bird can sit peacefully on it [with] no need to shove or squeeze.''

Climo's bright perspective is beautifully reflected in Ruth Heller's luminous illustrations. Heller expresses her love for birds in her colorful, scientifically accurate portrayals of these creatures, from hummingbirds to eagles.

Patricia Polacco's Rechenka's Eggs (Philomel, New York, 32 pp., $13.95, ages 4 to 10) is an original story, dedicated ``to Vladimir Pozner and Phil Donahue for `bridges' of understanding.'' This carefully crafted and illustrated tale indeed links cultures through its primal theme. Rechenka is a wild goose who is shot in the wing by a hunter. She is rescued and cared for by Babushka, a Khrushchevian-looking peasant woman who paints prizewinning eggs for the annual Easter Festival in Moscow. When Rechenka is nearly recovered, she accidentally knocks over Babushka's basket of painstakingly painted eggs. But Babushka is still able to take beautiful eggs to the Easter Festival, for Rechenka lays a baker's dozen of stunningly colored eggs to repay her kindly hostess.

Polacco's exquisite illustrations are bright and colorful, as well as authentic, since she has incorporated her knowledge and love of her Ukrainian ancestry. Clothing, icons, household furnishings, onion-shaped domes, and especially the intricately designed eggs add up to a rich, warm picture of a culture often misrepresented in recent decades.

A goose also appears as a main character in the title role of Susan Saunders's retelling of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's The Golden Goose (Scholastic, New York, 32 pp., $12.95, ages 3 to 8). Saunders enhances the flavor of the old tale with the addition of distinguishing features and names for the three brothers and the Princess, making it even easier for young listeners to recall the cleverly repeated plot lines.

Isadore Seltzer's oil-on-canvas paintings are charming-ly rendered, double-page spreads.

This well-known artist's droll humor shines through his characterizations and his depictions of such hilarious incidents as the little gray man's drinking a cellar full of wine and eating a mountain of bread.

Rounding out this quartet of spring publications is Sally Scott's adaptation of the Serbian folk tale The Three Wonderful Beggars (Greenwillow, New York, 32 pp., $13, ages 4 to 10). Scott's retelling is true to Andrew Lang's version (in ``The Violet Fairy Book'') from which she adapted it, for she has kept her simplification of diction to a minimum and retained all of the intricately linked plot, in which the childlike innocence and obedience of the young hero triumph over the malice of the older villain.

Already a popular author-illustrator of children's books in England, Scott will please young American readers with her precise style.

Full page, right-side illustrations balance left-side text, encouraging beginning readers to work from left to right - first hearing or reading the text and then looking to see what the pictures add or enhance.

Double-line borders edging the pages of both text and illustration link them in importance. And whether youngsters are readers or not, they'll be drawn into Scott's finely detailed, richly hued paintings through her extraordinary ability to represent perspective. All four books are sturdily bound, with easy-to-read type on quality paper.

Helen Borgens teaches writing about children's literature in the English department at San Diego State University.

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