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New visions of old tales. Favorites for all ages

HOLIDAY bookshelves are filling up with old favorites and new acquaintances, all in colorful dress. Several generations of readers will be delighted to discover a bright new edition of When the Root Children Wake Up (Green Tiger Press, San Diego, $12.95, 24 pp., ages 2 to 6), translated from the German by Helen Dean Fish, and originally written and illustrated by Sibylle von Olfer in 1906. With the reissue of this beautifully crafted, timeless picture book about playful seasonal tasks, the internationally known Green Tiger Press has again demonstrated its mastery of color separation technique.

Faded lithographs have been revitalized into charming landscapes. Colors are rich, warm, and distinct, enhancing von Olfer's precisely rendered paintings of insects, flowers, and grasses. Further highlighting each illustration is the addition of half-inch white margins, inset with narrow orange borders.

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Even the text of ``Root Children'' has been spruced up, with a smaller and smarter typeface set against a pale blue background and framed by wide white margins. This new edition makes accessible to the youngest generation an imaginative portrayal of some small and quiet but integral parts of nature and their roles through the cycle of the seasons.

Another perennial favorite appearing in fresh form is Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, translated by distinguished Andersen scholar Naomi Lewis and illustrated by Angela Barrett (Henry Holt, New York, $15.95, 42 pp., ages 4 and up).

Even before readers are touched by Lewis's eloquent translation, Barrett's compelling illustrations will capture their imaginations. Barrett, who was runner-up for the Mother Goose Award in 1984 for her illustrations of ``The Wild Swans,'' obviously has an affinity for Andersen's work, as evidenced by her attention to details of setting and characterization. What Andersen accomplished with words, Barrett illumines in her delicate paintings. Curiously, their strong Danish flavor universalizes the tale. Barrett's ethnically accurate depictions make ``The Snow Queen'' seem very real. Viewers can readily recognize themselves.

Barrett's remarkable illustrations combine with Naomi Lewis's meticulous translation and thought-provoking introduction to rekindle one's appreciation of Andersen's extraordinary skill as a storyteller. As Lewis points out, ``Of all of Andersen's major tales, [``The Snow Queen''] is the most free from ill fortune, sorrow, unkind chance. Kay and Gerda make their own luck, good or bad, as they go.'' She also observes that ```The Snow Queen' is the only great classic fairy tale in which every positive character is a girl or woman ... while the victim to be rescued is a boy.''

An Oriental tale that also features a young heroine who must break a spell is The Enchanter's Daughter, written by Antonia Barber and illustrated by Errol LeCain (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, $13.95, 32 pp., ages 3 to 8). This story relates the adventures of a young girl who is abducted by a rich man from a widowed mother and her son. As the girl grows up in the care of this man (who is able to provide her with everything through his powers of enchantment - everything but freedom and love), her memories of her life with her family begin to surface. Through her realization that she must outwit the Enchanter if she is ever to find the truth, she requests that he change her form. As Thi-Phi-Yen, a ``pretty, flying bird,'' she escapes her luxurious prison and finds her mother and brother.

Barber's poignant tale is beautifully complemented by LeCain's exquisite paintings. His skillful use of such rich hues as amber, jade, turquoise, magenta, violet, and purple imparts a gemlike radiance to his pictures, all of which are splendidly inset. LeCain has incorporated a marvelous wealth of detail into each jewel of a painting and its frame.

An American master at incorporating a wealth of detail into his illustrations is Maurice Sendak. He does just that in his pictures for Dear Mili (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, $16.95, 38 pp., ages 4 to 10), a recently discovered and previously unknown tale by Wilhelm Grimm, translated by Ralph Manheim.

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The story itself is simple enough, for it seems to follow the classic pattern of separation, initiation, and return. Yet, even at the outset, readers familiar with folklore will detect deviations from the pattern.

For example, the heroine's widowed mother sends her only child into the forest to save her from ``a terrible war,'' even though forests in folklore traditionally represent the scene of conflict. Nevertheless, the child remains in the forest in the care of her guardian angel and St. Joseph for what she thinks are three days. Actually, 30 years pass, and she returns home just in time to die happily with her mother. Here again, ``Dear Mili'' deviates from the standard folk tale, which affirms life - usually through a marriage at the conclusion.

The atypical sentimental nature of ``Dear Mili'' is suggested by Wilhelm Grimm himself in his prefatory remarks to Mili: ``You see, the brooks and the flowers and the birds come together, but people do not.... But one human heart goes out to another, undeterred by what lies between. Thus does my heart go out to you ... though my eyes have not seen you yet....''

Taking off from Wilhelm Grimm's unbridled sentimentality, Maurice Sendak imposes a severely personal interpretation on ``Dear Mili.'' War scenes - usually a folk metaphor for inner conflicts we all face - become yet another vehicle to dredge up the horrors of World War II. The little girl - usually a symbol for the child in each of us confronting worldly experience - is Sendak's sister Natalie, to whom ``Dear Mili'' is dedicated.

As Sendak aficionados know, for him to include such deeply personal points of reference in his pictures is true to his style. But his manner of doing so in ``Dear Mili'' indicates a change of view for the artist who would decorate but not illustrate Randall Jarrell's ``The Animal Family'' in order that he might not restrict readers' imaginations.

Helen Borgens teaches English at Riverside Community College in Riverside, Calif.

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