In the fairy tale is Cinderella rewarded for her beauty or her goodness?

In "Jack in the Beanstalk," do things turn out well for Jack because of luck and magic or his own cleverness?

These questions are being pondered by second graders participating in a program that encourages children to read major works of literature and arrive at their own interpretations of what they read. The questions are formulated to open children's minds to exploring the author's meaning of a particular aspect of the story.

This open-ended method of questioning and discussion is is the basis of the Junior Great Books program, a reading series offered from second grade through high school that exposes children to different types of writing and a variety of authors.

Second graders begin with a selection of folk and fairy tales, and stories such as Rudyard Kipling's "How the Camel Got His Hump," and Margery Williams's "The Velveteen Rabbit." By fifth and sixth grade, participants move on to works by Doris Lessing, Langston Hughes and Isaac Bashevis Singer. High schoolers graduate to Thucydides, Chekhov and Kafka.

"The program is an extension and enrichment of the regular curriculum," says Judie Muntner, principal of Damascus Elementary School, where last year 75 students signed up for Junior Great Books as an after-school activity. "The selections offer students the opportunity to be exposed to more books and more literature. Studies show that the more kids read, the better they get at it."

The program is run by the nonprofit Chicago-based Great Books Foundation and is offered in many area schools either as an extra-curricular activity or as part of a classroom reading and language arts curriculum.

For children participating in the program, the written word comes alive as they meet weekly with their trained Great Books leader to wrestle with a particular problem based on the assigned reading. The students are asked to give their ideas and are encouraged to disagree with each other and join in cross-conversation.

"It's exciting to see the kids take in the particular story's themes and come out with a consensus," says Pat Vorkink, a parent volunteer leader at Damascus Elementary School.

She recalls a session on Ray Bradbury's short story, "All Summer in a Day," which sparked a heated debate among a group of fifth graders. The story is about a colony of children living on Venus where the sun comes out for only two hours once every seven years. The children are envious of a newcomer from Earth, and decide to lock up the Earth child in a closet for the two hours of sunlight.

"The kids really got into the discussion, with half thinking the children on Venus were right to put the newcomer in the closet and the other half disagreeing," says Vorkink. Later, she polled the group and found that no one liked the story.

"I was amazed that they could have a 45-minute animated discussion with a lot of arguing back and forth, without liking the story," Vorkink adds.

The theory behind the Junior Great Books approach is called the "shared inquiry" method of discussion, in which the students share their ideas about the story based on what they have read. There is no right or wrong answer.

Begun in 1962, the program now is offered in more than 3,500 school districts in the United States.

"A major benefit of the program," says Georgianne Urban, Junior Great Books regional coordinator for the Washington metropolitan area, "is that participants develop a higher order of thinking skills. They cannot just read a story and express an opinion. They need to read the story again, talk about the question presented, and cite specific references in the text."

Kris Morgan, an elementary-school specialist with Prince George's Public Schools' Talented and Gifted (TAG) Program, says the thinking skills students learn through the program can be applied to other areas.

"The students learn to think critically as they read," she says. "We then try to follow through and use the interpretive method in reading other materials, such as newspapers and magazines, and in what is said on television."

Prince George's County has incorporated Junior Great Books into its TAG program, as have other jurisdictions around the country, but many who teach or whose children participate believe the program offers some real advantages for the slower reader.

"It's a collaborative learning effort, and a low-risk one for the student," says Urban, who points out there are no grades and the program is offered in a noncompetitive atmosphere.

A 1987 study by teachers Judy Feiertag and Loren Chernoff of Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, followed a fourth-grade class in weekly Junior Great Books discussions. Feiertag and Chernoff noted that during the sessions the children treated each other equally and the "usual group pecking order did not emerge."

They concluded that "it seemed that this approach to literature had a positive effect on each child's self-esteem and helped to circumvent the danger of (developing) a sense of inferiority."

The discussions must be led by someone trained in the Great Books method. The training course, run by the Great Books Foundation, is a two-day session.

The foundation recently has introduced a "Read Aloud" program for kindergartners and first graders and has developed a complete elementary-school reading/language arts curriculum.

"The curriculum," says the foundation's Urban, "is designed for mixed-ability groups."

To learn more about the programs and the training sessions: Great Books Foundation, 40 E. Huron St., Chicago 60611; 1-800-222-5870.