Publishers seem to be going berserk these days with holiday-theme books (we're getting lists now of Valentine's Day titles!), but Halloween always inspires an interesting stew of books, from the gently fun to the truly scary.
* "Plumply, Dumply Pumpkin" by Mary Serfozo (illustrated Valeria Petrone, Margaret K. McElderry, $12.95) is a winsome little rhyming ode to the perfect pumpkin, for children 3 to 6.
* "What Will You Be for Halloween?" by Mark Todd (Houghton Mifflin, $9.95) uses poetry to explore Halloween costume options, with welcome dollops of humor (Frankenstein as "a mean green sleepwalking machine"). For ages 4 to 8.
* "Frankenstein's Cat" by Curtis Jobling (Simon & Schuster, $14) is an offbeat and amusing "prequel" to the traditional tale, exploring Dr. Frankenstein's first lab creation -- a pet cat. For ages 4 to 8.
* "Monster Mischief" by Pamela Jane (illustrated by Vera Rosenberry, Atheneum, $16) is a very funny, non-scary story, told in rhyme, of two monsters who run into problems making monster stew when the pot overturns and the ingredients run away. For ages 3 to 7.
* "Hansel and Gretel" (Atheneum, $17). Beni Montresor offers boldly colored silhouette illustrations giving the traditional tale an almost operatic quality. For ages 4 to 8.
* "Kate Culhane, a Ghost Story" by Michael Hague (SeaStar, $15.95). Hague is not my favorite illustrator, but he deserves some credit for resurrecting this gruesome, delightfully spooky Irish folktale of a clever young girl who outwits a terrifying ghost. No recommended age group is given although the publisher says this picture book is for "seasoned ghost-story fans," -- not the fainthearted.
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For readers 7 to 10, there are two amusing ones:
* "Night of the Living Gerbil" by Elizabeth Levy (HarperCollins, $14.95) is the hilarious story of a gerbil (named Exterminator) who dies a natural death, then is brought back to life -- sort of -- in stuffed form.
* "The Werewolf Club Meets Dorkula" by Daniel and Jill Pinkwater (Atheneum, $15). The werewolf club must solve a mystery involving disappearing fruit after a geeky new kid shows up a school claiming to be a vampire.
Here are some titles for middle-grade readers:
* "The Haunting Hour" by R.L. Stine (HarperCollins, $11.95). This latest story collection, recommended by the publisher for readers 8 and up, includes 10 new "tales of terror," but some are just the same-old, same-old. The scariest are "The Babysitter" and "Are We There Yet?"
* "Pure Dead Magic" by Debi Gliori (Alfred A. Knopf, $15.95). Gliori is popular in Scotland, and fans of Harry Potter, ages 10 and up, may warm to her zany fantasy novel set in a Scottish castle inhabited by a witch, her three children (Titus, Pandora and the baby, Damp), a cryogenically frozen grandmother and a man-eating crocodile among other odd creatures. The gross little details and oddball humor are more fun than the bizarre plot twists that involve sending living beings by e-mail through a bewitched computer.
* "Witch Hill" by Marcus Sedgwick (Delacorte, $15.95). A young boy who recently survived a terrifying fire at his home goes to visit his Aunt Jane and cousin Alison for a "vacation," only to find himself in the middle of a fiery controversy over witchcraft. This spooky story is targeted at readers 10 to 14.
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For Young Adults (readers 13 and up), it would be hard to find scarier books than Darren Shan's "Cirque Du Freak" series. The just-published second book, "The Vampire's Assistant" (Little Brown, $13.95) now finds young Darren (in a macabre touch, the author names the half-human, half-vampire protagonist after himself), traveling with the circus freaks that scared the bejabbers out of him in the first book. An encounter with an environmental activist leads to a rip-roaring bloody finale that includes severed limbs. These books are not for the nightmare-prone.