It's Halloween this week, and kids everywhere will be dusting off copies of old favorites like "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and Janet Ahlberg's Funnybones. But there are plenty of new books, too, to frighten or enlighten us as the dread night draws near. Here's a selection.
The Ghosts of Rathburn Park, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (Delacorte, $15.95; ages 8-12). Eleven-year-old Matt Hamilton has just moved from Six Palms to Timber City, right next to heavily forested Rathburn Park, and the first thing he hears is that "the whole place is lousy with ghosts." Right. But on venturing into the forest, Matt meets a cloud-colored, disappearing dog and then an old-fashioned girl who tells him her name is Amelia Eleanora Rathburn, even though the only Amelia Rathburn still living in the area is nearly 100 years old. Matt gradually sorts the wood from the trees, but Snyder -- a veteran at juggling magic and realism -- knows enough to keep the door to mystery ajar.
Bury the Dead: Tombs, Corpses, Mummies, Skeletons, & Rituals, by Christopher Sloan (National Geographic, $18.95; ages 10-14). What better time of year to think about how different people bury their dead and why these rituals seem to matter so much? The Chacopoya of pre-Inca Peru buried corpses in the faces of towering cliffs. The islanders of Sulawesi, Indonesia, have traditionally placed their dead babies inside the trunks of trees. Modern Americans "shop for coffins as we would for cars." But in every case, Sloan says, the rituals of death tell us something about the way people live and what they believe. This being a National Geographic book, the photographs are numerous and stunning -- but also, it should be said, occasionally disturbing. Some children might not be ready, for example, for that picture of a Dani (Irian Jaya) tribesman posing proudly with the smoked, partly skeletonized, grinning remains of a dead warrior.
Picture Books The Festival of Bones/El Festival de las Calaveras: The Little-Bitty Book for the Day of the Dead, by Luis San Vicente, translated from the Spanish by John William Byrd and Bobby Byrd (Cinco Puntos, $14.95; early readers). In Mexico, people celebrate the Day of the Dead from Oct. 31 (the eve of All Hallows, or Halloween) through Nov. 2. And celebrate is the right word: As Mexico City artist Luis San Vicente says, "It's a party, not a funeral." His remarkable little poem, given in both the original Spanish and a rather free English translation, conjures up merry skeletons enjoying their special day but doesn't shrink from the facts. Here's a sample: "La calaca Pascuala canta/ Sin pena ni temor/ Aunque le falte una pata/ Y en el sombrero lleve una flor." ("Pascal's skeleton sings a song/ Without any pain or dread/ Although half a leg is really gone/ Still a flower sits upon his head.") Also included: recipes for sugar skulls and pan de muerto, the bread of death.
Porkenstein, by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by David Jarvis (Scholastic, $15.95; ages 3-up). A Halloween-flavored take-off on The Three Little Pigs, with a touch of Little Red Riding Hood thrown in for good measure. It's Oct. 31, and Dr. Smart Pig is lonely. His two brothers were eaten a year ago by the Big Bad Wolf. What to do? Invent a friend in his lab, of course: a bigger, better, wolf-proof pig. But alas, the nice new pig is huge, voracious -- a monster, in fact. Porkenstein! Luckily, the Big Bad Wolf himself comes trick-or-treating at their door. . . . Don't miss the sly details in David Jarvis's pictures.
Spooky ABC, by Eve Merriam and Lane Smith (Simon & Schuster, $16.95; ages 5-up). You might know this classic under its original title, Halloween ABC (1987). The redesigned version still features Merriam's poems, but the real glory of the book, Lane Smith's creepy-comic illustrations, has been reproduced in "digitally corrected colors" (think of swamps, dried blood and freshly turned earth), and several that were left out of the first edition are restored. From A is for apple (complete with coiling worm) to Z is for zero ("only bubbles mark where it sank"), Spooky ABC is second only to Chris van Allsburg's The Z was Zapped as the world's scariest alphabet.
-- Elizabeth Ward