STORYTELLING is an important part of all our lives. The rhythmic words of ``Goodnight, Moon'' are just as essential to a child as are the repeated readings of ``The Secret Garden'' or ``Charlotte's Web'' to a young teen-ager, or the profound words of a Bible parable to an adult. Why these stories and why the repetition? As Joseph Campbell, the late mythologist and scholar, has observed: ``It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.'' The best of the stories we love hearing remind us of who we are and what we can accomplish; we recognize a part of ourselves in the hero or heroine. In keeping with that tradition, three new anthologies offer young readers a wealth of myths, folk tales, fairy tales, and animal stories to choose from.
Three years ago, Virginia Hamilton collected black folk tales in ``The People Could Fly,'' an anthology that has become a standard text for what is recognized as an important part of American and world literature. In her new collection of creation myths, In the Beginning, illustrated by Barry Moser (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, $18.95, 176 pp., all ages) Hamilton has outdone herself.
The stories included range from relatively obscure African, Australian, and American Indian myths to better known tales of the Greeks and Egyptians, ending with the seven days of creation as recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible.
Hamilton has written the foreword of this stunning new work, retold the stories, provided a running commentary, and assembled a very useful and impressive bibliography. As always, she writes with grace, restraint, and power. The illustrations by well-known artist Barry Moser are superb and capably capture the reverence and mystery that are inherent in world mythology.
In one myth, for example, we read about Pandora, the beautiful daughter of the Greek god Zeus, and her insatiable curiosity. After she opened that infamous box and all the troubles of the world flew out at her en masse, a final creature emerged, at first timid and faltering, then warming and ready for flight. It was Hope. And Pandora urged it to stay with her.
``If I do not hurry,'' Hope replied, ``humans will have to little reason to live.''
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich has consistently published beautiful books, including picture books as well as fiction and nonfiction.The publishers have topped themselves with this new volume, a prime example of the art of fine bookmaking. This is a book that children will enjoy dipping into, that schools will be proud to own, that will become a useful tool in the research and appreciation of world mythology.
Many great authors have penned original stories for young readers, including Russian author Leo Tolstoy. In 1849, when he established a school for country children and assumed the role of instructor, he found few stories for children in the Russian language that were not overly religious or didactic. So he wrote some himself, basing them on Aesop's fables, folk tales, nature studies, and some of the children's own work.
The Lion and the Puppy, translated by James Riordan and illustrated by Claus Sievert (Henry Holt, New York, $15.95, 60 pp., all ages), is a new edition of Count Tolstoy's stories, which shares some of them for the first time with English-speaking audiences. The stories are a mixture: Some are like reminiscences of Tolstoy's own childhood, some are engaging folk tales, and some seem oddly of little consequence.
Although Tolstoy no doubt did much to enliven his pupils' lessons with his own inventive writing, he is nevertheless remembered as a great writer for adults and seems more at ease with that audience than with nursery tales. As a result, this book may have more interest for older readers and for librarians. Claus Sievert's delicately colored illustrations are most successful in depicting natural scenes, but seem a little stiff in his depiction of people.
Each of the 12 stories in A Magical Menagerie, retold by Sheila Wainwright, illustrated by Frances Wainwright (Henry Holt, New York, $16.95, 64 pp., all ages), is a delight. Devoid of the more earthy elements of some folk literature, these stories are the work of literary masters of the likes of Charles Perrault, La Fontaine, Hans Christian Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm. Included are such favorites as ``Puss and Boots,'' ``The Ugly Duckling,'' ``The Country Mouse and the Town Mouse,'' and ``The Musicians of Bremen.''
These stories sing with the magic of fine storytelling and remind us of the delight we have all felt in hearing a good story for the first time. Frances Wainwright's illustrations are bright and full of life and charm. Also included in the book are brief, one-page biographies of the authors, with illustrations of the authors as they were seen by their contemporaries. Parents could do no better favor for their children than to introduce them to these animal stories. The editors of The Enchanter's Spell, illustrated by Gennady Spirin (Dial, New York, $14.95, 84 pp., all ages), have carefully chosen five chidren's stories by literary authors George MacDonald, Alexander Pushkin, E.T.A. Hoffman, Miguel de Cervantes, and Hans Christian Andersen.
Even if these stories had been shared with children on plain white pages, the enchantment of the words themselves would have brought them alive for young readers. But the crowning glory of this elegant book is the illustration of Soviet artist Gennady Spirin. His work has exquisite detail and coloration, as well as a subtle humor and liveliness. Hoffman's ``Nutcracker,'' for example, is portrayed in rich 17th-century splendor, right down to the marvelously costumed mice at play and battle. MacDonald's ``Little Daylight'' has a dreamy Renaissance romanticism.
The pallid images that TV and videos offer our children can hardly satisfy growing minds. But the stories in any one of these four books will more than meet the need for genuine reading pleasure and intellectual meat.
Stephen Fraser is senior editor of the Weekly Reader Book Clubs.