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Colorful tales to charm children

A well-established compiler of folklore, John Bierhorst, has chosen ``shapely, richly detailed stories'' for The Naked Bear (Morrow, 123 pp., $14.95, ages 12 and up). These stories, he says, are ``more substantial than the anecdotes and folkloric hearsay that often pass as folk tales,'' and it's true that there is much in them to interest all ages. Children will enjoy hearing the magical chants characters sing, the sound effects that are written into the text, and even the sonorous comments (``So there. I am through'') that end each story.

They'll understand that the violence that occurs so matter-of-factly between antagonists is just another trick pulled from the storyteller's bag of special effects.

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Dirk Zimmer's compressed pictures, though they emphasize the strange and playful elements of the stories, further help to diminish the horror of some scenes.

Jane Louise Curry, who has told Indian stories to children for 30 years, has gathered tales from California Indians in Back in the Beforetime (McElderry/Macmillan, New York 134 pp. $12.95, ages 10 and up).

Though tidier than folk tales should be (and printed here without notes on their sources), these stories have a sprightly tone and polish that make them a pleasure to read aloud.

The trickster-hero, Coyote, who always interferes, puts in many smart appearances - as he rides a star, steals the sun, and makes the first man. Fanciful drawings by James Watts, with their cuddly-looking beasts, seem more attuned to fantasy than legend, but they suit Curry's style.

Two other collections focus on Indian stories about the stars. Star Tales, by Gretchen Will Mayo (Walker, New York, 96 pp., $11.95, ages 12 and up), recalls a time when diverse native peoples looked up at the sky giving varied and dazzling accounts of the stars and their patterns.

As Ms. Mayo says, ``There once must have been almost as many different stories about the Milky Way as there were Indian tribes in North America.''

There's a hint of eternity in such stories as ``The Tale of the Hungry Skunk,'' in which a star outside a ring of stars - the constellation Auriga - is seen as a lazy skunk perpetually waiting for food. The hardworking women who refuse him never give in: ``They are clustered to this day around their cooking pit.''

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Mayo's evocative style is enhanced by her drawings, which convince us that the velvety black night might truly be a stage for immortal characters and that human beings might actually pass from earth to sky and back, in all their moods.

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