INTRODUCING KIDS to different cultures is a subtle art. Children are naturally curious about different people and places; the trick is to feed that spark without smothering it in good intentions.
Don't turn every visit to an ethnic restaurant into a social studies field trip. And try not to send the message that books about other cultures are "good for you," or kids will attack them with a relish they usually reserve for a plate of Brussels sprouts.
As with just about any subject, if the parent is genuinely interested in people of different backgrounds, the child will share that inquisitiveness. If you want to explore the world together, here are some recent books worth checking out.
* "Everybody Cooks Rice," by Norah Dooley, illustrations by Peter J. Thornton (Carolrhoda Books, $12.95, ages 4-8). In a wonderfully mixed neighborhood full of immigrants from all over, a girl goes from one house to the next, sampling each family's dinner.
The theme is obvious enough: Each neighbor's meal is very different, from the black-eyed peas and rice of Barbados to the risi e bisi (rice with green peas) of northern Italy. But rice is the staple of everyone's diet. It sounds as hokey as a verse from "It's a Small World After All," but it's not.
The author makes each family seem real. Madame Bleu is making a Creole-style Haitian dinner, with peppers, red beans, chives and rice. "Monsieur Bleu works two jobs, so he won't get home till late. Madame Bleu says the pot will stay on the stove, and the rice will get tastier and spicier."
Other families hail from Puerto Rico, Vietnam, India and China. At the end of the book, there are simple recipes for each family's specialty -- a winning touch.
Carolrhoda Books, based in Minneapolis, offers dozens of other books about diverse cultures. One favorite is the "Count Your Way through . . ." series by Jim Haskins, for kids ages 6 to 10. India and Israel are recent additions to the series, which also includes Germany, Italy, Africa, the Arab World, Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Russia.
If you can't find Carolrhoda titles in the bookstore or library, call 1-800-328-4929.
* Another excellent source for multicultural books is Children's Book Press in San Francisco. It's probably the only place you could expect to find "Judge Rabbit and the Tree Spirit," a bilingual Cambodian folktale in English and Khmer, told by Lina Mao Wall, adapted by Cathy Spagnoli and illustrated by Nancy Hom ($13.95, ages 6-12).
A newlywed couple is saddened when the king calls the young husband to war. Hearing the beautiful wife weeping, a tree spirit decides to disguise himself as the husband, and she welcomes him home. Then, of course, the real husband returns. So it is up to Judge Rabbit, a compassionate Cambodian folk hero, to come up with a scheme that will reveal who is truly the husband.
Children's Book Press features stories from Asia, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe, as well as Native American titles. For a free catalog, write to Children's Book Press, 1461 Ninth Ave., San Francisco, Calif. 94122.
* "The Orphan Boy," by Tololwa M. Mollel, illustrated by Paul Morin (Clarion Books, $14.95, ages 5-9). This elegant book is based on a story that Mollel, a member of the Arusha Maasai tribe, learned while growing up in Tanzania.
Kileken is an orphan who comes to live with an old man. In return for the kindness, the boy magically saves the old man's cattle from drought and makes sure the old man prospers -- on the condition that he doesn't try to find out the secret behind the boy's powers.
Alas, curiosity gets the better of the old man, and Kileken disappears into the heavens. Adults will be captivated by this book; Morin's oil paintings are alive with light, shadow and texture.
* "The Bird Who Was an Elephant," by Aleph Kamal, paintings by Frane Lessac (J.B. Lippincott, $14.95, ages 5-9). Not a fable or folktale, this is a portrait of life in modern India told through the eyes of a bird who flies from the river where women in saris are bathing, over the village streets where the snake charmers are charming and children are begging, past the marketplace where everyone is bargaining.
Lessac's fanciful illustrations steal the show throughout the book: On the palmist's wall is a newspaper clipping from the Los Angeles Times with the headline, "Palmist visits the stars." Each page has a different border (boom boxes frame the noisy street scene; trains chug along around the railway station). You can almost smell the sandlewood incense in the temple and hear the samosas sizzling in the chai shop.
This book and scores of others about different cultures are available through The Heritage Key catalog (818-951-1438).