This dreamy, elegant Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks, retold and illustrated by artists at the peak of their powers, is a gem.
The brilliantly colored mandarin duck and his more soberly feathered mate live in happiness, until the male is captured by a greedy lord. In captivity, the duck pines for his mate. He fades and droops until the lord banishes him to a corner of the garden, where Yasuko, a tenderhearted maid, is able to rescue him. She and Shozo, a one-eyed former samurai reduced to servitude by their contemptuous master, are human counterparts of the ducks they have befriended, and are as simple, loyal, and loving.
When their ''crime'' is discovered and they are about to be executed by the wrathful lord, Yasuko and Shozo are rewarded in universal fairy-tale fashion. They are rescued by two masked and mysterious ''messengers from the emperor,'' who take them to a safe haven in the woods, where they have long and fruitful lives.
The Dillons' Japanese-style watercolors are superbly graceful, haunting in their rich, subdued colors. Paterson's narrative is fluid and intelligent. A+