Every child has his or her own capacity for processing the difference between "fun" scary and genuine fear. Lucky for parents, there's a wide spectrum of kids' books new for Halloween, from the safely cute to the uncomfortably eerie, with points between for all ages.
Here's a sampling:
Babies to Toddlers:
The concept of Halloween may be entirely lost on the 2-and-under crowd, but if younger kids are making the rounds with the rest of the family on Halloween night, a comforting bedtime story with images they're sure to encounter may not be a bad idea in the runup to the big night.
Though not exclusively Halloween-themed, "Little Spider," by Wendy Lui and illustrator Kloartje van der Put (Chronicle Books, $6.95), could go a long way toward instilling a sense of the holiday's playfulness in the littlest of readers, with its chunky board pages through which a finger-puppet spider (controlled and voiced by the hammy parent, of course) pokes her adorable felt head.
"Tucker's Spooky Halloween" (Candlewick Press, $7.99) evokes the epic struggle between coming-of-sentience kids, who naturally want to be something garish or terrifying for the holiday, and their parents, who would prefer "cute." Except that Leslie McGuirk's protagonist is a little white dog (once truly cute as a smiling puppy-pumpkin) who, no longer a pup, longs to be a ghost or a skeleton or anything more frightening than the cowboy outfit his owner buys him to match her own.
Ages 2 to 4
At this age, some children are learning they enjoy the feeling of being a little scared - to a point. As long as they're assured of the harmlessness lurking behind the mask, all's well.
To that end, the classic "Scary, Scary Halloween" (Clarion Books, $5.95) delivers. The halting, repetitive cadence of Eve Bunting's text reads like a chant, and the story launches with an air of anticipation and mystery: "I peer outside, there's something there."
Jan Brett's dark, surrealistic paintings are suitably eerie. What follows is a progression of people in admirably hair-raising costumes, who are watched all the while by four sets of green eyes in the darkness. A surprise ending reveals the harmless creatures who own the eyes.
Also toeing the lighter side of that threshold is "Skelly, the Skeleton Girl' (Simon and Schuster, $12.99), the third Halloween-themed kids' book by writer and illustrator Jimmy Pickering.
'Skelly' occupies the same macabre-but-endearing space of Tim Burton's characters in "The Nightmare Before Christmas,' and seems to borrow heavily from that cult classic's aesthetic, too.
Skelly is a happy-go-lucky (if not particularly fetching) "skeleton girl,' who makes it her mission to find the owner of a bone she finds on her floor. Even the ghosts seem a jolly lot, and Pickering's way with color and style are themselves enough to fire the imagination.
Ages 4 to 8
This is the Halloween sweet-spot, where the thrill of being someone or something else for a night is fully realized, and children either develop a passion or a distaste for "ghost' stories.
A more cerebral child will appreciate "How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin?' (Schwartz and Wade, $14.99), by Margaret McNamara and illustrated by G. Brian Karas. It tells the story of Charlie, the smallest kid in class who, by way of a class-wide experiment with pumpkins, learns a math lesson that teaches "small things can have a lot going on inside of them.' Parents will appreciate a few bits of humor that were embedded just for them.
Newbery award-winning author Kate DiCamillo ("Because of Winn-Dixie'), better known for her novels aimed at older children, gives her series about a spirited pig who is treated by her owners like a spoiled child the Halloween treatment with "Mercy Watson, Princess in Disguise' (Candlewick Press hardcover, $12.99).
Learning-to-read kids will appreciate Chris Van Dusen's dynamic illustrations that are interspersed throughout the text as the porcine heroine reconciles her understanding of the word "treat' on Halloween. Kid-sized hilarity ensues, minus the ghost-story creepiness.