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Colorful critters and characters inhabit tales from the heart of Dixie

Regional writing possesses a force, like weather. It has flavor as distinct and redolent as gumbo, fried chicken, or maple syrup. It's always surprising when someone dismisses a work of literature as merely regional when our greatest American writers were rooted in particular places, from Hawthorne to Dickinson to Eudora Welty.

This month, two new children's books come from the heart of Dixie. The first, a splashing, trilling, croaking song, sounds from "Deep in the Swamp," (by Donna M. Bateman. Illus. by Brian Lies. Charlesbridge. $15.95. Ages 3-9) All the plants and animals depicted are found in the Okefenokee, a cypress swamp that extends from southern Georgia to northern Florida.

The picture book's lulling rhythms and gentle counting game, familiar in folk songs, will appeal to pre-schoolers:

"Deep in the swamp, in the warm morning sun,

Lived a mother river otter and her little pup One.

'Splash!' said the mother. 'I splash,' said the One.

So they splashed and they played in the warm morning sun."

The book, which begs to be chanted aloud, takes us up to 10:

"Deep in the swamp, in an underwater den,

Lived a mother crayfish and her little crayfish Ten."

Brian Lies's full-color, double-spread illustrations add depth and detail. His art, and the appendix at the back, render this book a naturalist's dream -- a world of bottle-green leaves and shimmering blue damselflies, gold-speckled alligators and yellow flame birds. In the appendix we learn that mother bullfrogs "lay up to 20,000 eggs at one time," and that some animals use floating lily pads "as a bridge to walk across the water." "Deep in the Swamp" offers a marvelous bedtime lullaby, and a glimpse into swamp life teeming far down south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Ruth White's "Way Down Deep" (FSG, New York. $16, 197 pp. Ages 10-15) gives another portrait of our American South, though hers is a deep, sweet study of human, not animal, nature. The novel is rich with characters -- librarians and old maids, judges, the town doctors known simply as Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, a sheriff whose "heart was way too soft and his mind too fuzzy for sheriffing."

The storyline begins: "In the early morning hours of the first day of summer, l944, a small redheaded girl was abandoned in front of Way Down Deep's courthouse. Maybe she was two and a half, three at most. Nobody could tell for sure, and the child could not say." While the book concerns the fate of this mysterious child, it is also a portrait and celebration of the nature of community. The child, Ruby June, falls into the unlikely, loving arms of formidable Miss Arbutus Ward:

"In Way Down, news was quick to make the rounds, and so it was that Miss Arbutus Ward heard about the child from one of her boarders. Though she was known in the town to be somewhat remote, and not fond of talking to people, she wasted no time in walking to the sheriff's office in the heat of the day, and stating her purpose.

'I want the girl, Sheriff,' was exactly what Miss Arbutus said. 'I'll take good care of her--that is, until you find her people.' And she said no more. Just stood there as tall and thin as an evening shadow, waiting for his answer."

Over time, the whole town raises and watches over Ruby -- till she becomes a teenager and begins to follow the trail leading to her own long-buried roots. Part detective mystery, part coming-of-age novel, "Way Down Deep" is an exuberant, endlessly inventive, mixed bouquet. At one point a hapless robber attempts to hold up the bank with a toy gun.

"How'd you get to Way Down, Bob?"

"On the bus."

"And how were you planning to get away after robbing our bank?"

"On the bus," Bob said.

Bob's listeners were too polite to say what they thought of that dim-witted scheme.

The town adopts even Bob, providing food and shelter for his family. It is a fairy-tale world, with orphans and grieving adults, a generous world in which miracles and mysteries blow down off Yonder Mountain where panthers prowl.

Keenest of White's many gifts is her talent for creating a raft of engaging minor characters: "Mr. Crawford, a somewhat gloomy man of independent means . . . had been working for years on a book called 'A Colorful History of Way Down Deep, West Virginia.' Nobody had ever seen a page of it, but when the townspeople asked him how the book was progressing, he always replied, 'Splendidly! Splendidly!' "

The town is one of the book's most vivid entities ("The curb had collected paper cups, Popsicle sticks, candy wrappers, and discarded gum. But . . . by morning the town would be as clean and tidy as Miss Arbutus' kitchen.") Some readers may resist the Southern charms of "Way Down Deep," but the novel's accomplishments are too numerous and fine to be overlooked: " 'Everybody is haunted by somebody,' Mr. Crawford was saying to her. 'What haunts you, Ruby June?' "

"Way Down Deep" has humor and heartbreak, romance, danger and mystery. It's what every novel ought to be -- a panoply of life, as diverse and beautiful as any cypress swamp.

Liz Rosenberg reviews children's books monthly for the Globe.

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