A STROLL past the bookstores in most malls this time of year prompts a double-take. With black and orange crepe paper draped around the prominent displays of Halloween books for kids, it looks like the Hallmark store a few doors down has completed a hostile takeover.
Alas, the holiday has become a marketing tool for publishers, with the usual mixed results. Here are a few recommendations -- and some judgment calls -- regarding recent releases.
* Proof there are still a few bargains out there: "Ghosts and Goose Bumps: Poems to Chill Your Bones," selected by Bobbi Katz, illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray (Random House Pictureback, $2.25, ages 4-8).
This anthology of 27 poems is perfect for putting the family in a spooky mood. It includes selections by Karla Kuskin and Jack Prelutsky, Lilian Moore and William Shakespeare ("Double, double toil and trouble..."). One favorite is the anonymous poem about what it's like in a coffin. It goes, in part: "The worms crawl in. The worms crawl out. The worms play pinochle on your snout!"
* The title is similar, but on a fright scale of one to 10, the following book rates a nine: "Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones," collected from folklore and retold by Alvin Schwartz, drawings by Stephen Gammell (Harper Trophy paperback, $3.95, ages 9 and up).
Another bargain, this is packed with short stories that any Boy Scout or Girl Scout can commit to memory and retell at the next camp-out. Many make your flesh crawl, and Gammell's illustrations can be gruesome, so be wary about sharing it with kids (and adults) who aren't ready for real scary stuff.
Schwartz, who has put together several other excellent collections of ghostly tales, explains the origins of many of the stories in a fine section on notes and sources at the back of the book.
* For those prone to nightmares, a non-scary choice would be "Funnybones," by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (Mulberry paperback, $3.95, ages 4-8). This is a fun read-aloud story starring three skeletons: a grown-up, a kid and a dog skeleton.
They leave their dark, dark cellar one night to take the dog for a walk, hoping to frighten somebody along the way. Instead, the dog bumps into a tree and collapses into a pile of bones that have to be put back together again (an opportunity for a rendition of "The foot bone's connected to the leg bone..."). They never do frighten anyone -- except themselves -- and the Ahlbergs' cartoon-like illustrations complement the gentle story. The skeletons also star in two sequels, "The Black Cat" and "The Pet Shop," both $12.95 from Greenwillow.
* The Ahlbergs are recognized among the best of the modern British children's book authors, and Colin McNaughton is right up there with them. He doesn't disappoint with his latest: "Guess Who's Just Moved Next Door?" (Random House, $15, ages 3 and up).
The publisher's suggested age range is 3-7, but kids of all ages will find a new pun or silly detail that strikes their fancy after several readings. McNaughton takes readers on a walk down the strangest street around, where monsters live next door to a family of eggs named the Dumptys, where Michelangelo works in a studio with a witch as his upstairs neighbor and where Fred Z. Thread is an invisible man who runs a tailor shop advertising invisible mending.
Details are crowded on every page and the gags are non-stop leading up to the grand finale, a double-page foldout that reveals the odd folks who've just moved in: a perfectly normal family. "There goes the neighborhood," says King Kong. "Snakes alive!" says Medusa. "Bless my soul," says the devil. Well, you get the idea.
* Another book crammed with sight gags that readers might not catch until the third or fourth time around is "Full Moon Soup, or The Fall of the Hotel Splendide," by Alastair Graham (Dial, $14.95, ages 6 and up). Without any words, this is reminiscent of a Mad magazine cartoon. Some of the slapstick happenings are funny and some aren't, but there's always plenty of action.
Every time you turn the page there's a two-page spread of the hotel, with the front wall cut away to reveal the two main floors, the attic, the basement and a crypt off the cellar. A different plot takes off in each room, and by the end of the book, catastrophe has befallen every character. Aliens land on the roof, the cook whips up a werewolf-inducing soup in the basement and ghosts, gorillas and mummies wreak havoc everywhere in between.
* Speaking of jokes that don't always work, here's a book most kids will love and most parents will loathe: "Knock! Knock!" by Colin and Jacqui Hawkins (Aladdin, $14.95, all ages). It's an elaborate lift-the-flap book set in a haunted house, with three, four or five knock-knock jokes on every two-page spread.
A sample: "Knock! Knock! Who's there? Ammonia. Ammonia who? Ammonia little monster. Please let me out." And that's one of the better ones.
* The trend toward books as toys has yielded "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: A Pop-up Mystery Whodunit," design by Keith Moseley, pictures by Linda Birkinshaw (Dial, $12.95, ages 6-9). The pop-ups are intricate but the plot is worth reading only once. One of eight characters at a dinner party has stolen Lady Penelope Pig's diamond, and here's the gimmick: The answer is sealed in an envelope on the last page. Once you read the answer and go back to catch the clues you missed the first time through, what's the use in picking up the book again? Just pass it along to a friend.