CHILDREN'S

Thumbelina, by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Susan Jeffers, retold by Amy Ehrlich (Dial/Pied Piper, $4.95; ages 4-8). Stories about tiny people always delight children, and in Thumbelina Hans Christian Andersen wrote one of the best precursors to The Borrowers and Stuart Little. But like all Andersen tales, this one has an undercurrent of wistful sadness, as Thumbelina is separated first from her foster mother, and then finds herself in thrall to a selfish mole who wishes to marry her. Her life is full of good deeds, peril and misunderstanding -- all set right at the end as Thumbelina's selflessness and kindness are rewarded.

The Winter Place, by Ruth Yaffe Radin, paintings by Matti Lou O'Kelley (Reading Rainbow/Atlantic- Little, Brown, $6.95; all ages). The story of a winter idyll is illustrated with magical, Grandma-Moses like primitives -- rural scenes of houses, fields, animals, trees and people, all in that flat perspective which emphasizes each one equally. The story, such as it is, is really only a simple outline: a family goes skating on an alpine frozen pond and returns afterward to the warmth of home. The pictures are colorful, detailed, full of light, and should delight any audience.

The Knee-High Man and Other Tales, by Julius Lester, pictures by Ralph Pinto (Dial/Pied Piper, $3.95; ages 4-8). This collection of six stories from black folklore are meant to entertain and to instruct. Like many folktales they celebrate the triumph of the little guy over the bigger and more powerful one -- the cunning rabbit over the big dumb bear for instance. Another story explains a phenomenon of nature, why the waves have white caps, for instance. Ralph Pinto's illustrations are a colorful addition to the text. FICTION

Marcella by Mrs. Humphrey Ward (Virago/Penguin, $7.95). The well-connected Mrs. Ward -- niece to Matthew Arnold, aunt to Aldous Huxley -- was a highly successful novelist, notable for her early feminism. But when the allurements of the British Establishment beckoned, she succumbed, assuming the presidency of the Anti-Suffrage League. The young Rebecca West attacked her, and her reputation declined. Yet the hypercritical Henry James admired her novels, and she seems overdue for a revival. In an ecumenical mood Virago, which has also republished several of West's books, has resuscitated this novel about a young woman of the 1880s who is torn between her political idealism and her longing to marry and raise a family -- a dilemma faced by many a woman before and since.

Pariah and Other Stories, by Joan Williams (Avon, $3.50). Part of Avon's attractive "Southern Writers Series," this collection of short stories by one of William Faulker's most talented proteges charts the territory of the rural and small-twn South -- the land where porches sag on tenant houses, where screen doors slap on summer days, where matrons while away hot afternoons over bridge games. Joan Williams has an unfailing eye and ear and a sensibility schooled by a master. NONFICTION

Margaret Mead: A Life, by Jane Howard ($4.95); Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years, by Margaret Mead (Washington Square, $5.95), and With a Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, by Mary Catherine Bateson (Washington Square, $4.95). The anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) was one of the really important American social scientists of this century, besides being a fascinating individual in her own right. Jane Howard's fastidiously researched life of Mead follows her lively career through many professional controversies -- over culture and religion, education and child-rearing, sex and freedom, and the politics of hunger, war and peace. Pure theory was ll very well, Mead once said, "But what are we going to do?" Howard's definitive biography is complemented by Mead's own charming reminiscences of her youth and her daughter's memoir of growing up with two brilliant eccentrics as parents.

The Noel Coward Diaries, edited by Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley (Little, Brown, $15). Kept sporadically from 1941 until 1969, four years before his death, these diaries show Sir Noel at points high and low in his varied career as playwright, novelist, song-writer, and performer. He can be catty -- about, say, the Duke of Windsor. He can also engage in shrewd self-analysis, as in this assessment -- one of the last entries -- of his clever and prolific nature. "How fortunate I was to have been born poor. If Mother had been able to afford to send me to private school, Eton and Oxford or Cambridge, it would have probably set me back years. I have always distrusted too much education and intellectualism . . . My good foune was to have a bright, acquisitive, but not, not an intellectual mind, and to have been impelled to get out and earn my living. . ."

Ghost Dance by David Humphreys Miller (University of Nebraska, $8.95). The most successful pan-Indian movement came too late, in 1890, when nearly every tribe was hemmed in by reservation boundaries. Initiated by a Paiute shaman called Wovoka, a craze of dancing spread from tribe to tribe. Its purpose was far from recreational: the dance, it was believed, would undo all the white man's conquests and restore the world as the Indians enjoyed it before his arrival. A corollary belief in the mana associated with specially-made Ghost Dance shirts contributed to the bloodiness of the Wounded Knee Massacre: the shirts failed to render their wearers impervious to bullets. Based in part on interviews with Indians who had participated in the cult, this is a gripping account of a desperate search for salvation.

The Best Buys in College Education, by Edward B. Fiske (Times Books, $9.95). With the price tags of college education soaring, Edward Fiske, education editor of The New York Times, presents some reasonably priced possibilities. It's nice to know there are some. Here he profiles more than 200 colleges, both public and private, ranging in cost from $10,200 down to $2,000. They all offer, according to Fiske, good value for money.

T.S. Eliot: A Life, by Peter Ackroyd (Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, $12.95). "With his own strong convictions, he was able to form the literary taste of a generation." So writes Peter Ackroyd of T. S. Eliot's stint as an editor with the London publishing house of Faber and Faber. Eliot was much more than an editor, of course; and his judgment was by no means infallible -- as witness his rejection of George Orwell's Animal Farm. But it is one of this critical biography's many virtues that it illuminates Eliot as editor and other less-known facets o his life and work.

100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, by Gary Provost (Mentor, $3.95). Gary Provost's The Freelancer's Handbook may be the best little book in its burgeoning field -- the care, if not feeding, of would-be writers. In this volume he deals with writing itself. His examples are pithy. To demonstrate the punchiness of using the active voice in most sentences, he turns a common expression over onto its passive back: "An even break should never be given to a sucker." To coax writers into using parallel expressions for greater emphasis, he provides a similar travesty: "Fish gotta swim, and flying is what birds must do." The very last of his 100 ways is, appropriately enough, "Use Common Sense."

Multiple Sarcasm, by Alice Kahn (Ten Speed Press, P.O. Box 7123, Berkeley, Calif. 94707, $7.95). This is a collection of essays and columns by a nurse, wife, mother, and wit who writes regularly for The East Bay Express, one of the free newspapers that have cropped up in yuppie-filled cities across the country. (Washington's own City Paper is a member of this breed.) Alice Kahn may indeed be the originator of the term ''yuppie" -- the matter is disputed and will undoubtedly be decided by young lawyers. In one column, she explains that transcendentally unusual community, Berkeley. "The first rule is that Berkeley, like Tina Turner, never does anything nice and easy. If you keep this in mind you won't be surprised when what would seem to be the simplest of civic acts -- fom tree trimming to garbage disposal -- become issues of heated debate, protest, emotion, and political intrigue." This is a book for those who would like to know more about the febrile soul of California, as well as those who would like to laugh their upwardly mobile heads off.

Mothers and Sons, by Carol Klein (G.K. Hall, $7.95). Oedipus demonstrated it dramatically -- mothers and sons have a complex and problematical relationship, one wrol Klein examines exhaustively in this fascinating study. She looks at all kinds of mother-son bonds, from the perverse to the healthy. All are fraught with conflict, resolved or unresolved.