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New Halloween books offer fun and eerie tales for kids

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.