THE TALE OF THE MANDARIN DUCKS By Katherine Paterson Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon Lodestar/Dutton. $14.95

IN A New York children's bookshop recently, I overheard a customer asking for something on Japan -- a story preferably -- for a child whose interest in the country had been aroused by meeting a child from Tokyo. Katherine Paterson's name came up immediately and a copy of The Master Puppeteer was produced, but this was not quite what the customer had in mind. It was not Osaka at the time of the 1780s famine she wanted, but rather a book with a background in modern Tokyo. The absence of any such stories in translation is remarkable, so I have to admit that when I heard that Katherine Paterson's first 'non-translation' picture book had a Japanese theme, I hoped it might have a contemporary setting. Like those other Japanese products, the Sony Walkman and manga (comics), which can block out any idea of what is really going on, the stylized view of life represented in the traditonal Japanese art of ukiyo-e excludes contemporary reality.

The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks is not a translation but a re-telling of a traditional Japanese folktale. It is expertly told, of course, this story of a cruel lord who captures a mandarin drake and imprisons him in a bamboo cage for his own pleasure. The drake pines for his mate, arousing the pity of two of the lord's servants. The ailing creature is released and returns to the wild, but the servants are sentenced to death for resisting their lord's will. As they are about to be executed, two mysterious messengers arrive, who say they have orders from the Emperor that the accused should be brought to him. Somehow the ducks have found a way to reward their rescuers for their compassion.

Leo and Diane Dillon, while working in watercolour and pastel, have succeeded in creating an effective pastiche of ukiyo-e, the art of woodblock printing that flourished in Tokugawa Japan. The lord in his wide-shouldered kamishimo, the ladies with their elaborate hair styles, could come straight from a print by Utamaro. It was Utamaro's contemporary, the novelist Bakin, who mused on the fact that "the bird in the cage longs for the sky because it misses its friends." That probably sounds much better in Japanese. Fortunately Katherine Paterson's story sounds good in English and this collaboration of prize-winning talents produces a beautiful book.

Ann Thwaite is the author of "A.A. Milne: The Man Behind Winnie-the-Pooh."