10 Historical Divination Methods for Predicting the Future

The Liver of Piacenza, a model of a sheep's liver used in Etruscan divination and unearthed in Italy in 1877.
The Liver of Piacenza, a model of a sheep's liver used in Etruscan divination and unearthed in Italy in 1877.
Shonagon, Wikimedia // CC0 1.0 (cropped)

Humans have been trying to predict the future since long before the Magic 8 Ball was invented. Divination, often using bones and entrails, was a common practice in the ancient world, and perhaps even earlier. Since then, it's seemed like just about any handy object lying around—books, chickens, even cheese—has been used to attempt a glimpse at upcoming events, leading to a host of compound words formed with the suffix -mancy (which can be traced back to the Ancient Greek for "seer" or "prophet"). Here are some of the more intriguing forms of historical divination—some may even still be practiced today, depending on who you ask—from the widespread and better known to the more delightfully obscure.

1. Hieromancy (Divination Using Entrails)

Beginning in Mesopotamia and then in classical Greece and beyond, animals were sacrificed in divinatory rituals and their internal organs (notably the liver) were inspected for omens. Aside from oracles, it was the most important divination method of the classical world: In his De Divinatione ("On Divination"), the Roman orator, statesman, and writer Cicero wrote "nearly everybody employs entrails in divining." The gory practice went by a few different names, including extispicy (from the Latin exta, or "entrails") and haruspicy, and was practiced by specialists, sometimes called extispices or haruspices. Though details on how exactly the interpretations worked can be scarce, a healthy liver was generally a positive sign, but if the organ lacked a lobe, doom was all but certain. Defects in the heart of the animal were also seen as a very bad portent, as was extra bloodiness. The Etruscans were famed practitioners of hieromancy, and at least one life-size bronze model of a sheep liver (likely made for educational purposes) has been unearthed, marked with names of various gods in each quadrant—a little like the entrails version of old phrenology heads.

2. Ornithomancy (Divination Using Birds)

Interpreting the behavior of birds is one of the oldest forms of divination, and was a common part of Greek religious life. In Aristophanes's comedy The Birds, the leader of a chorus of birds brags of their usefulness in divination: "Before undertaking anything, whether a business transaction, a marriage, or the purchase of food, you consult the birds by reading the omens." (However, the bird also says: "With you a word is an omen, you call a sneeze an omen, a meeting an omen, an unknown sound an omen, a slave or an ass an omen.") In Rome, ornithomancy was practiced by public priests known as augurs, who "took the auspices" by observing birds and other natural signs, such as thunder and lightning, to interpret the will of the gods. The number, flight, and cries or songs of both wild birds and caged sacred chickens could be used; if food fell from the beaks of the chickens while they were eating, it was a very propitious sign.

3. Pyro-osteomancy (Bone Oracles)

Pieces of oracle bone engraved with early Chinese writing from the Shang dynasty.
Pieces of oracle bone engraved with early Chinese writing from the Shang dynasty, collection of Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University
BabelStone, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

In ancient China, bones were used to tell the future. During the Neolithic period, the Shang dynasty, and beyond specialists would inscribe questions on animal (often cattle) shoulder-blades and tortoise shells, then chisel pits into them and insert heated points. The cracks made by the heated points were then interpreted as answers to the questions—either as positive or negative omens, or with more specific meanings. Some scholars even think the meanings of these cracks formed the basis for early Chinese script, and the oracle bones, as they're now known, are definitely the oldest evidence of Chinese writing. The oracle bones had been forgotten by history until their rediscovery around the early 20th century, when large caches were found; previously, they had known as "dragon bones" and ground up into medicine. Similar forms of pyro-osteomancy were found throughout East and Northeast Asia, and even North America, and in some cases may still be practiced by indigenous peoples.

4. Bibliomancy (Divination Using Books)

The practice of asking a question, opening a book at random, and interpreting the first passage your eyes (or fingers) hit upon as an answer was once widespread among the Greeks and Romans, the Muslim world, medieval Europe, and elsewhere. The Bible, the Book of Psalms, the Koran, and the works of the Roman poet Virgil were among the books most commonly used. Divination employing Virgil's writing even had its own name, the sortes Virgilianae. (Because it's the 21st century, you can now practice it online.) And you didn't even necessarily need to read the books to use them for divination—in Russia, people would tie books to the ceiling using string, and then pay attention to which way the books swung when certain names were mentioned. The direction of the swing could indicate the name of a future spouse, or girls who would marry within the year.

5. Alectryomancy (Divination Using Chickens)

Chickens weren't just a handy food source in the ancient world—they could also predict the future. Various divinatory methods were employed in which chickens were offered a choice of grain in a particular location or direction, which corresponded to an answer to the subject in question (the parties in a battle, say, or the direction from which a future husband might come). According to The New Encyclopedia of the Occult, one famous example of alectryomancy took place during the reign of the Emperor Valens (364-378 CE), in which a group of Roman courtiers sought the name of Valens's successor. During the ceremony, a circle was drawn and divided up into segments, with each segment corresponding to a certain letter, and a grain of wheat was placed in each segment. After various arcane incantations, the chicken pecked the grains corresponding to the letters t,h,e,o, and d, which was understood to mean "Theodotus," a local official who was known to be ambitious. Sadly, Valens found out about the episode and had everyone killed—including Theodotus. (It's less clear what happened to the chicken.)

6. Tyromancy (Divination Using Cheese)

The use of cheese as a divination tool was known in the ancient world and the Middle Ages, although the details aren't very well-recorded. Some say the shapes of the holes in the cheeses were thought to hold meaning—a heart shape could indicate love, and certain holes could be read as initials. According to occultopedia.com, young women in the countryside would predict future husbands by writing the names of suitors on pieces of cheese. The first to mold was believed to be the ideal mate. It may be worth noting, however, that the Greek diviner Artemidorus did not feel that cheese divination was very reliable, and included cheese diviners among his list of "false diviners," alongside dice diviners, sieve-diviners, and necromancers. (The interpretation of dreams and livers was far more dependable, he felt.)

7. Ceromancy (Divination Using Melted Wax)

A drawing of women practicing divination with lead or wax
A drawing of women practicing divination with lead or wax
Čeněk Zibrt, Wikimedia // Public Domain

The swirling shapes made by pouring melted wax into water were used as a divination tool in both ancient and medieval Europe. One common method was to melt the wax in a brass container, and then pour the liquified wax into a vessel full of cold water, after which the diviner would interpret the shapes floating in the water. A related practice, molybdomancy, used the shapes in molten metal, usually lead. One 19th-century Irish book instructs women curious about the trade of their future spouse to take a small lump of lead and put it under their pillow on Midsummer's Eve. The next day they were to heat the lead until boiling, take a pail of water, and pour in the lead—"take it out, and you will find … emblems of his trade; if a ship, he is a sailor, [if] a book, a parson … and so on."

8. Cledonomancy (Divination by Words Overheard)

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, chance utterings weren't always just that. The art of cledonomancy, or divination from overhead words, could be practiced either inside or outside of a specific ritual. In De Divinatione, Cicero relates a story about the Roman general Lucius Paulus, who was then readying his armies to fight King Perseus of Macedonia. Coming home one evening, he noticed that his young daughter Tertia looked forlorn. "What is the matter, Tertia, my dear? Why are you sad?" he asked. His daughter replied, "Oh! father, Persa is dead." Persa was the name of the little girl's puppy, but her father interpreted the words as an omen meaning he would defeat Perseus, which he did.

Specific Greek oracles, such as the oracle of Hermes at Pharai, were also designed around cledonomancy. After burning incense and making offerings, those who wished to know their future would whisper a question into an ear of Hermes's statue, cover their ears, and walk away. The first words they heard when they uncovered their ears were interpreted as the answer to their query.

9. Ring Oracles and "Under-the-Bowl Songs"

In Russia, divination was once a popular pastime for the days just after the New Year, known as the strashyne ("fearful") days, when evil spirits were said to be particularly active. According to W. F. Ryan's The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia, divination performed between midnight and 3 a.m. on these days was especially effective. One popular practice involved "under-the-bowl songs," in which rings and other personal objects were placed in a bowl and special divinatory songs sung, with each verse corresponding to a particular fortune (poverty, spinsterhood, etc.).

In one version of the practice from the Kaluga province, girls started by fetching water from a well, speaking the name of a man they wanted to marry as they did so. Once home, they poured the water into a bowl, sprinkled in some oats, added their rings, a cross, and charcoal, then covered the bowl and asked someone (usually a widow) to agitate the water with her pinkie finger. The group would then sing a song, and the widow would draw out a ring at the end of each verse. Ryan gives the example of a verse that foretells death:

Death is walking down the street,
He carries a pancake on a plate,
To the one whose ring is taken out,
It will happen,
It will happen soon,
It can't be escaped.

10. Herring Fat and Membranes

In mid-19th-century Belfast, according to Oxford's Dictionary of Superstitions, women predicted the character of their future husbands using the slimier parts of a herring. One interview excerpted in the dictionary described "a small, silvery-coloured, glutinous membrane, of perhaps an inch and a half in length, [that] lies along the under side of the backbone of the fish." The source goes on to recollect seeing female servants "divining by means of this little membrane" the physical or character traits of their future spouses, by throwing the membranes of herring they had eaten against a wall and interpreting the shape it made. "It depended on the way in which it rested, if it stretched out quite straight, curved, crooked, very crooked, or all in a little heap, whether the future husband would be tall and handsome, or small and ugly," the source said. A similar practice was also known in Scotland, where the 1824 Gallovidian Encyclopedia is a little more blunt: "Herring Soam, the fat of herrings. Young girls throw this against a wall, and if it adheres to it in an upright manner, then the husband they will get will also be so; if crooked, he will be crooked."

How 25 of Your Favorite Halloween Candies Got Their Names

iStock/mediaphotos
iStock/mediaphotos

Soon, small superheroes and ghosts and all sorts of other strange creatures will be canvassing your neighborhood begging for candy. But as you pass out your wares, you can also dole out some (not terribly spooky) etymologies.

1. 3 MUSKETEERS

3 Musketeers candy bar.
Erin McCarthy

When 3 Musketeers bars were introduced in 1932, they consisted of three flavors—chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry—and were labeled "The 3 Musketeers, Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry. 3 bars in a package.' Eventually the vanilla and strawberry flavors would disappear, although there’s evidence that they weren't ever particularly important flavors. A 1933 Notice of Judgment from the Acting Secretary of Agriculture describes a shipment of the treats that was seized in part because "[t]he strawberry and vanilla bars had no recognizable flavor of strawberry or vanilla and the strawberry bars were also artificially colored."

2. AIRHEADS

Pile of AirHeads candy.
Jasmin Fine, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

According to Steve Bruner, who invented the name, he had heard that it takes a generation for a candy name to become part of the collective consciousness—unless it was already a commonly used word. So he asked his children, "What would you call your friend who did something silly?" and one of them came up with 'Airhead.'

3. BUTTERFINGER

Three Butterfinger candy bars.
Amira Azarcon, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to legend, the Curtiss Candy Company of Chicago decided to run a contest to name their new candy bar, and someone suggested 'butterfinger,' a term used in the form "butter-fingered" since the early 17th century to describe someone who lets things fall from their hands.

4. CANDY CORN

Jack-o-lantern mug full of candy corn.
iStock

In the late 19th century, confections shaped like other things were all the rage (the Candy Professor tells of children then eating candies shaped like cockroaches … for Christmas). Candy corn was invented around this time, and was a stand-out novelty product because real corn kernels—which the candy vaguely resembled—were then mainly a food for livestock, not people.

5. DUM DUMS

Jar of Dum Dums lollipops.
Sarah Browning, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

According to the Spangler Candy Company, the manufacturer, the name Dum Dum was chosen because it "was a word any child could say."

6. HEATH BAR

Two Heath candy bars.
Erika Berlin

In 1914, L.S. Heath decided to buy a candy shop and soda fountain so his children could have a good career. Several years later, the family got hold of the toffee recipe (potential sources range from a traveling salesman to nearby Greek candy makers) that made them famous, especially after they started supplying candy to troops during WWII.

7. HERSHEY'S

Hershey's chocolate bars in a basket.
slgckgc, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Milton Hershey had worked for a few years in various candy businesses, but it was in Denver that he came across the caramel recipe that would become a massive hit. Not resting on his laurels, he learned of the new European craze for "milk chocolate" and brought it to the masses in America.

8. HERSHEY'S COOKIES 'N' CREME

Hershey's Cookies 'n' Creme candy bar.
Like_the_Grand_Canyon, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The candy bar came about in 1994, somewhere around 15-20 years after the ice cream flavor that it was capitalizing on. Where the ice cream comes from is a mystery—claimants range from South Dakota State University to a Blue Bell Creameries employee (to make matters more difficult, many versions of the story have the invention happening after a visit to some anonymous ice cream parlor that put Oreos on their ice cream, and as early as 1959 Nabisco was suggesting that crumbled Oreos in-between layers of ice cream made a great party parfait). No matter the culinary origin, the name origin is generally agreed upon—Nabisco balked at allowing ice cream companies to use their Oreo trademark.

9. HERSHEY'S KISSES

Hershey Kisses on an orange table.
Song Zhen, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Over 100 years ago, kiss was a generic term for any number of small pieces of confectionery. So when Hershey came out with their product, it was a natural generic name. As years went by and "kiss" lost this particular meaning, Hershey was able to assert control over the name.

10. JOLLY RANCHERS

Bowl of Jolly Rancher candies.
Thomas Hawk, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

When William and Dorothy Harmsen set out to Colorado, their goal was to start a small farm/ranch. Eventually, they decided to open up an ice cream parlor named The Jolly Rancher, evoking both Western hospitality and the Jolly Miller—a hotel in their native Minnesota. The story goes that as sales declined in the winter months, the Harmsens decided to add candies to their menu, which soon outstripped the popularity of all their other offerings.

11. KIT KAT

No one is quite sure where this comes from. The oldest use of the word "kit-cat" in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1665 to describe a game more commonly known as tipcat, but this is probably coincidence. More likely is that it’s somehow related to the Kit-Cat Club of the early 18th century, which met at a place operated by a mutton pieman named something like Christopher Katt or Christopher Catling. Both he and his pies were named Kit-Kats/Kit-Cats (the prologue to the 1700 play The Reformed Wife even has a line "A Kit-Cat is a supper for a lord"), and the club took its name from either the pie or the pieman.

The jump from a gentleman's club or mutton pie to a candy is more mysterious. A popular theory is that it's related to kit-cat pictures, a type of portrait that the OED describes as "less than half-length, but [includes] the hands." But like most other hypotheses, this doesn't really work because the producer, Rowntree's, registered the name years before there was a candy to go with it, and the candy was originally known as Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp. Most likely is that someone just liked the name.

12. LIFE SAVERS

Pile of Life Savers candies.
Erika Berlin

The name Life Savers is fairly self-explanatory—they're broadly shaped like a life saver. (Any rumors of the hole existing to prevent a choking death have no merit.)

13. MILKY WAY

Milky Way candy bar.
Like_the_Grand_Canyon, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Before 1970, Milky Way had a very different connotation. That year, headlines in newspapers across the country blared "FTC Decides Candy Bar Isn't Equal to Milk." The reason for this headline is that the FTC criticized Mars for implying in their advertising things like "Milky Way's nutritional value is equivalent to a glass of milk" and 'That it can and should be substituted for milk." (Odd nutrition claims were nothing new though—early on, Hershey’s advertised their chocolate bars as being "more sustaining than meat.")

While the galaxy certainly helped with the name, the original focus of the Milky Way was about how "milky" it was, and specifically that it was milkier than a malted milk you could get at a soda fountain.

14. M&M's

Bag of opened M&Ms.
iStock

The two Ms stand for Mars and Murrie. This Mars was Forrest Mars, the son of Mars candy company founder Frank Mars. Forrest and Frank had a falling out, which resulted in Forrest going to Europe and founding his own candy company (many years later, he would return to take over Mars, Inc after his father's death).

How he came up with the idea for M&M's is a bit mysterious (with versions ranging from wholesale ripoff to inspiration during the Spanish Civil War), but is generally related to a candy-covered British chocolate called Smarties (unrelated to the American Smarties). When Forrest Mars returned to the United States to make these candies, he recognized that he needed a steady supply of chocolate. At the time, Hershey was a major supplier of chocolate to other businesses and was run by a man named William Murrie. Forrest decided to go into business with William's son, Bruce (which long rumored to be a shameless ploy by Forrest to ensure a chocolate supply during World War II), and they named the candy M&M's.

15. MR. GOODBAR

Bowl of Mr. Goodbar candy bars.
Erika Berlin

According to corporate history, Hershey chemists had been working on a new peanut candy bar. As they were testing it, someone said "that's a good bar" which Milton Hershey misheard as "Mr. Goodbar."

16. REESE'S PEANUT BUTTER CUPS

Stack of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.
Sheila Sund, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Harry Burnett Reese started working for the Hershey Chocolate Company in 1916 as a dairy farmer, but after leaving and returning to Hershey's a few times over the following years, Reese set out on his own. His great peanut butter cup invention was supposedly inspired by a store owner who told him that they were having difficulties with their supplier of chocolate-covered peanut butter sweets.

17. SKITTLES

Bags of Skittles in a vending machine.
calvinnivlac, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Skittles originated in the United Kingdom, where "skittles" is a type of bowling, either on lawns or on a tabletop in pubs. The phrase "beer and skittles" emerged to describe pure happiness (now more commonly seen in "life is not beer and skittles"). So the name for the candy likely emerged to associate it with fun.

18. SNICKERS

Bunch of Snickers fun size candies.
iStock

The candy bar was named after the Mars family horse. The Mars family was very into horses, even naming their farm the Milky Way Farm—which produced the 1940 Kentucky Derby champion Gallahadion.

19. SOUR PATCH KIDS

Two bags of Sour Patch Kids.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Originally called Mars Men, the Sour Patch Kid was renamed to capitalize on the popularity of the '80s craze of Cabbage Patch Kids.

20. TOBLERONE

Close-up of a Toblerone candy bar.
Helena Eriksson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Toblerone is a portmanteau of the candy inventor—Theodor Tobler—and torrone, a name for various Italian nougats. As for the distinctive triangle shape, it's generally credited to the Swiss Alps, but Toblerone’s UK site suggests something a little racier—"a red and cream-frilled line of dancers at the Folies Bergères in Paris, forming a shapely pyramid at the end of a show.”

21. TOOTSIE ROLL

Pile of Tootsie Roll candies.
Lynn Friedman, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The official story is that in the late 19th century, Leo Hirschfeld invented the Tootsie Roll—Tootsie coming from his daughter's nickname. But the Candy Professor has blown multiple holes in the official story, finding evidence from patents to trademark filings that show Tootsie Rolls came into existence circa 1907. And as for the Tootsie? The Candy Professor has also found that the company that applied for those trademarks had an earlier product called Bromangelon that had as a mascot the character "Tattling Tootsie." Whether this Tootsie was named after Hirschfeld’s daughter or something mysterious is still debated.

22. TWIX

Twix candy bar.
iStock

The meaning behind Twix has been lost to time (and marketing). But the general consensus is that it's a portmanteau of twin and sticks (stix), or possibly twin and mix.

23. TWIZZLERS

Bag of Twizzlers candy.
iStock

Another term where the true origin is unknown, but it’s certainly related to the word twizzle, which dates back to the 18th century. One of the definitions the Oxford English Dictionary gives is "To twirl, twist; to turn round; to form by twisting."

24. YORK PEPPERMINT PATTIES

Two York Peppermint Patties
Barb Watson, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The popular patties were originally created by the York Cone Company out of York, Pennsylvania, which made ice cream cones before going all in on their new invention. As for the "Peanuts" character Peppermint Patty, Charles Schulz said that the name inspiration was "A dish of candy sitting in our living room." But as the York version was still regional at the time, the inspiration was probably a different peppermint patty.

25. BABY RUTH

Pile of Baby Ruth mini candy bars.
Erika Berlin

A debate for the ages. Otto Schnering named the bar after either Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland (whose New York Times obituary said, "She was known to the Nation as 'Baby Ruth' while she was a child in the White House") or Babe Ruth, the famous baseball player. While Baby Ruth was a very popular name (and not just for Presidential daughters. An actress at the time of the candy bar’s introduction was known as "Baby" Ruth Sullivan), Babe Ruth proponents point out that Cleveland’s daughter died in 1904, around 17 years before the candy was introduced. But claims of a recently discovered court document has Schnering answering under oath the question "When you adopted the trade mark Baby Ruth…did you at that time [take] into consideration any value that the nickname Babe Ruth…might have?”

Schnering responded, "The bar was named for Baby Ruth, the first baby of the White House, Cleveland, dating back to the Cleveland administration…There was a suggestion, at the time, that Babe Ruth, however not a big figure at the time as he later developed to be, might have possibilities of developing in such a way as to help our merchandising of our bar Baby Ruth."

12 Quirky Books for Imaginative Kids

Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

Though childhood classics like A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are never truly go out of style, each year brings a new cache of funny and fantastical books that will feed the expanding imaginations of young readers everywhere. From a self-conscious sewer monster who wants to make friends to a gluttonous dinosaur who gobbled up Christmas, this guide has the perfect quirky story for every kind of kid on your holiday gift list.

1. Rumple Buttercup // Matthew Gray Gubler ($9)

This whimsical tale about a self-conscious sewer monster is written and illustrated by Criminal Minds star, and king of quirk, Matthew Gray Gubler. While cute characters and a simple message about embracing your individuality make it a great gift for very young kids, its absurdist humor makes it a laugh-out-loud read for older kids and adults, too.

Buy it: Amazon

2. President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath // Mac Barnett ($8)

president taft is stuck in the bath
Candlewick/Amazon

Mac Barnett’s good-natured retelling of William Howard Taft’s infamous (though unconfirmed) bathtub blunder teaches children two things. One, history is far from a tedious list of names, dates, laws, and battles. And two, even the most stately world leaders have embarrassing moments.

Buy it: Amazon

3. It’s Only Stanley // Jon Agee ($15)

it's only stanley book
Dial Books/Amazon

When strange noises wake the Wimbledon family at night, they assume their dog Stanley is cleaning or fixing something; in reality, Stanley is transforming their house into a rocket ship that will carry them to an alien-inhabited planet. Fans of The Secret Life of Pets and Phineas and Ferb’s Perry the Platypus will love this rhyming read-aloud (and surely wonder what their own pet is up to when they’re not around).

Buy it: Amazon

4. Frankie Sparks and the Big Sled Challenge // Megan Frazer Blakemore ($6)

frankie sparks and the big sled challenge
Aladdin/Amazon

Third-grade inventor Frankie Sparks is back for the third book in her STEM-inspired series, and this time, she’s about to learn that the hardest part about creating a competition-winning sled is less about sled-building and more about team-building. Great for elementary school kids who love to create anything—be it art or architecture—as well as anyone who’s ever had to work on a group project.

Buy it: Amazon

5. The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! // Mo Willems ($10)

the pigeon has to go to school
Hyperion Books/Amazon

Mo Willems’s original pigeon book was Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, a thoroughly riotous, award-winning tale about a pigeon trying to convince readers to let it drive the bus when the bus driver asked them not to. In the latest story, the headstrong pigeon pivots to something it very much does not want to do—go to school. It sends a message about the value of doing things you don’t want to do, but, most importantly, it’s also really funny.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Glass Town Game // Catherynne M. Valente ($11)

the glass town game
Simon & Schuster/Amazon

Catherynne M. Valente spins a riveting fictional tale from the true story of Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell Brontë’s childhood in a Yorkshire parsonage, where they passed the time dreaming up an intricate fantasy land populated with toy soldiers. In Valente’s novel, the fantasy land comes to life, complete with whale-sized flies, Champagne flutes that play music, and fire-breathing porcelain roosters, and the siblings must use all their wit and imagination to figure out how to get home. It’s a little like Alice in Wonderland meets The Chronicles of Narnia, and perfect for fans of both.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Lambslide // Ann Patchett ($13)

lambslide
HarperCollins/Amazon

The internationally bestselling author of Bel Canto and Commonwealth is just as clever when it comes to writing for kids. In Lambslide, a group of lambs mistakenly hear lambslide instead of landslide and begin a farm-wide campaign for an actual slide for lambs. With quaint illustrations, endearing characters, and an engaging plot, this is the type of book that ends up in the family for generations.

Buy it: Amazon

8. The Book With No Pictures // B.J. Novak ($9)

The Office alum B.J. Novak turns storytime into a full-fledged comedic performance with The Book With No Pictures, a book filled with nonsense words and phrases like blork and blaggity blaggity, which the reader has to read aloud. For parents, it’s a blueprint for embracing their silly side. For kids, it’s a chance to see their parents not seem so parental.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Spencer’s New Pet // Jessie Sima ($14)

spencer's new pet
Simon & Schuster/Amazon

The author of Not Quite Narwhal returns with another adorable story, this time about a boy who must avoid sharp objects in order to protect his balloon-animal pet dog. The mostly black-and-white illustrations (except for the dog, which is red) give Spencer’s New Pet a refreshingly old-fashioned feel, and the tale itself is sweet, evenly paced, and timeless.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Serafina and the Black Cloak // Robert Beatty ($8)

serafina and the black cloak
Disney-Hyperion/Amazon

When children begin disappearing from the Biltmore Estate, Serafina, who secretly lives in the basement, knows the culprit is a mysterious man in a black cloak who prowls the corridors at night. This novel has everything a quality middle-grade fantasy needs, including secret passageways, a forbidden forest, unknown magic, and a scrappy heroine. And the chills and thrills don’t stop at the end—it’s the first in a series of four (so far).

Buy it: Amazon

11. The Dinosaur That Pooped Christmas // Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter ($18)

the dinosaur that pooped christmas
Aladdin/Amazon

This jolly, strange story about a ravenous pet dinosaur who gobbles up all of Christmas is hilarious enough on its own—and perhaps even more so when you consider that it was written by British punk rockers Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter from the band McFly.

Buy it: Amazon

12. This Is a Taco! // Andrew Cangelose ($16)

this is a taco
Lion Forge/Amazon

A high-spirited, unique squirrel named Taco provides color commentary on regular squirrel facts in This Is a Taco!, a book that is much more than a factual guide to squirrels. In it, Taco embellishes, acts out, and sometimes completely changes the facts to be truer to his personal experience as a squirrel, which involves being opinionated and eating lots of tacos.

Buy it: Amazon

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