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May 17, 1987|KRISTIANA GREGORY

MUFARO'S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTERS: AN AFRICAN TALE by John Steptoe (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard: $13; 32 pp.; ages 4-8). While this beautiful picture book is dedicated to the children of South Africa, its story will touch youngsters of any culture. Influenced by a 1895 edition of "Kaffir Folktales" by G. M. Theal, Steptoe creates a universal fable about the perils of pride. His lush illustrations reflect the fauna and flora of Zimbabwe as well as details inspired by ruins from an ancient city near there. Archeologists believe this site was once a spectacular trade city built and inhabited by native Africans, and that this tale was first heard from those peoples. Steptoe names his characters from the Shona language, giving translations on the first page.

"A long time ago," the fable begins, "in a certain place in Africa, a small village lay across a river and half a day's journey from a city where a great king lived." In this village lives Mufaro with his two comely daughters, one sweet, the other surly. When the king announces he wants to marry and that he will choose from "The Most Worthy and Beautiful Daughters in the Land," Manyara-the-surly sneaks to the palace with a fury. She treats everyone in her path with cruelty because, what the heck, she presumes she'll be crowned queen by tomorrow.

Meanwhile, her sister, gentle Nyasha, befriends every creature she meets, and when she travels to the palace, she and the reader are in for a happy surprise. The moral can be interpreted on several levels: the cause-and-effect of karma, the virtues of living The Golden Rule, false pride is indeed false or, simply, be kind to all living things. Manyara learns a bitter lesson for being such a mean girl while Nyasha's kindness pays off royally.

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