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Salad Bowl of Storybooks

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ONCE described as a "melting pot," the United States is referred to more often these days as a "salad bowl" or a "stew pot." The following recently published books celebrate the richness of cultural diversity suggested by that revised description. Picture books

A pair of unusual mermaid tales combine folklore and art. For Sukey and the Mermaid (Four Winds, $14.95, ages 5 to 8), Robert D. San Souci dipped into South Carolina Sea Island lore and emerged with this gem of a tale of a girl's encounter with a mermaid who helps her triumph over difficult circumstances. San Souci is a storyteller par excellence, and his tale's lilting African-Caribbean cadences are perfectly matched by the powerful grace of Brian Pinkney's scratchboard illustrations.

Mexican poet Alberto Blanco serves up an original folk tale set in the Sonora Desert in The Desert Mermaid/La Sirena del Desierto (Children's Book Press, $13.95, ages 5 to 12). Accompanied by artist Patricia Revah's vibrant needlepoint tapestries, this bilingual story relates a lonely mermaid's trek from her desert oasis back to the sea. Along the way, she relearns the forgotten songs of her people. Though occasionally heavy-handed, the story has a thoughtful message about the importance of art.

The scene shifts to the Louisiana bayou for Patricia C. McKissack's A Million Fish ... More or Less (Alfred A. Knopf, $14, ages 4 to 8). This outrageous tall tale features an African-American boy named Hugh Thomas who, after an extraordinarily successful fishing trip, ends up nearly empty-handed except for a whopper about the ones that got away. The bold strokes and larger-than-life style of Dena Schutzer's sunny paintings reflect the exuberance of McKissack's yarn.

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