Trends

TOYING WITH TRADITION

A retro theme runs through many of the season’s most popular gifts for kids

Brian Bethune December 24 2001
Trends

TOYING WITH TRADITION

A retro theme runs through many of the season’s most popular gifts for kids

Brian Bethune December 24 2001

TOYING WITH TRADITION

Trends

BRIAN BETHUNE

A retro theme runs through many of the season’s most popular gifts for kids

Parents who have yet to strap on their armour and venture out into the holiday toy-buying fray—and at this late date you know who you are— should take heart. There’s no single mustbuy item dominating children’s wish lists this year, not like 1996, when Fredericton retail employee Robert Waller suffered a broken rib after frenzied shoppers trampled him in pursuit of scarce Tickle-Me Elmo dolls. And the good news doesn’t stop with physical safety in store aisles. As Janice Prittie, president of T. J. Whitney’s

Traditional Toys, notes, “There’s definitely a retro thread running through the whole toy market.” That means indecisive parents can be guided by what they liked as children. And best of all, at least for those for whom money is an object, some of the hottest toys out there—ones that kids, as well as experts, like—are outright bargains.

The first product from Prittie’s Victoriabased company, Wooden Marbles and Blocks ($50 in cardboard container, $60 in

wooden box), is the exact replica of a present Prittie’s grandmother—the Theos Juliet Whitney commemorated in the company name—gave Prittie’s mother and uncle for Christmas in 1928. Consisting of 16 black blocks and 246 wooden coloured marbles, it has won awards and recommendations from parenting magazines for two years running. Even the box-top art reproduces the original drawing, which was the work of well-known Canadian-born illustrator Norman Mills Price, also credited with creating the famous RCA Victor logo of a dog listening to “his master’s voice.” Kids from 4 and up love it, using the mar-

bles and double-sided dimpled blocks to create whatever architectural wonders take their fancy. Retailers, including some very high-end ones such as Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and marthastewart.com, like its elegant style too. Canadians can find it at more than 100 independent retailers across the country (listed on tjwhitneystoys.com), and at Lee Valley Tools.

Spin Master Toys of Toronto is another small Canadian firm that has mined the past for its current success, The Incredible

Shrinky Dinks Maker ($35). Like the original—invented in 1973 by two Milwaukee homemakers as a Cub troop project—the new Shrinky Dinks involves colouring, cutting and then shrinking plastic (via heat lamp) into pendants and other knick-knacks. The results, as garish as the Seventies themselves, are highly popular among girls 8 and older, especially in the U. S. where, Spin Master spokesman Harold Chizick says, the original is considered “a piece of Americana.” But like the post-Sept. 11 surge in demand for police and firefighter toys south of the border, the American craze for Shrinky Dinks is

not fully matched here, and the kit is still readily available in most major Canadian toy chains.

Even toys tied to the phenomenally successful Harry Potter franchise sell best if they also echo old favourites. Danish buildingblock giant Lego, a childhood staple for seven decades, leads the way. Its wonderfully detailed—and rather expensive— model of Hogwarts Casde ($ 140) may be this year’s closest equivalent to Tickle-Me Elmo. No injuries among shoppers or store

staffers have yet been reported, but Harry’s school and the crimson Hogwarts Express train ($70) that brings him there can be very hard to find—even Lego’s own Web site won’t promise delivery before the end of March. (Other Potter toys, like Mattel’s Levitating Challenge game [$55]—in which one or more players race one another and the clock while manoeuvring a ball through obstacles—are still plentiful on store shelves.)

Lego also makes another of the year’s hottest items, the very affordable Bionicles ($10). These warriors for good have exotic names like Kopaka or Lewa and a complicated storyline, but their true appeal is that children construct the Bionicles themselves, making the toys more satisfying than other straight-from-the-box action

figures. And Lego seems to have produced enough of them that, despite unexpected demand—Bionicles were aimed at sevenand eight-year-olds, but are lusted after by older boys too—they can still be found on store shelves.

If there is a female equivalent to the Bionicles, it’s the Groovy Girl rag doll ($15)—also known as the anti-Barbie— and her accompanying clothes, furniture and pets. Now several years old, “the doll of choice for moms who hate Barbie,” as

one toy seller called it, continues to sell steadily, although nowhere near as well as the pink juggernaut herself. The latest must-have from Mattel’s venerable franchise is Nutcracker Barbie ($31), which features two outfits—Snowflake and, naturally, Sugarplum Princess—as well as clothes for Ken and Kelly and other sundries. Diva Starz ($31), four big-eyed, gratingly cute, interactive dolls who “just want to be your friend,” are also making lots of pals, and money, for the company.

Younger girls, and their parents, are captivated by German manufacturer Zapf Creation’s Be Happy Jolly Dolly ($31). Not only does she endear herself by giggling when her tummy is tickled, but there is no wardrobe line to strain parents’ wallets. Three-year-olds of both

sexes who enjoy the oh-so-slow pace of the Blues Clues TV show also like FisherPrice’s electronic Learn to Draw ($45) version. A series of three drawings appear on a LCD screen, and as the child copies them, he or she can work out what the mystery object is.

Just as Lego’s Hogwarts model shows that not every hit this season is cheap, Game Boy Advance ($140) proves that they’re not all old-fashioned either. Nintendo’s new handheld electronic game sys-

tern—with a larger screen and sharper images than its predecessor—sold 50,000 units in Canada within five days of its June launch, and the sales rate has not slowed down much, if at all, since then. Of the annual flood of games issued for play systems and PCs, Microsoft’s popular Zoo Tycoon ($40) stands out for kids and parents who don’t like shoot-em-ups. An absorbing logic and puzzle-solving game, it requires players to build a zoo on a limited budget. Considering the animals get sick or cranky if their particular needs aren’t met, it’s not a bad introduction to pet care either.

But the season’s coolest toy may well be the Pixter ($75), which combines all of the season’s themes. Fisher-Price’s “handheld digital creativity system” is at once electronic, retro, relatively inexpensive—

and frequently sold out. It’s essentially an updated Etch A Sketch—with a touchsensitive LCD screen, drawing stylus, music and other special effects. Be warned, however: the basic unit is sold without any of the $17 software plug-ins required, something not immediately obvious from the package. Still, it’s a marvellous device that gives kids 4 and older hundreds of imaginative ways to truly play, by creating images and not simply reacting to them. E3