A Toy Snob Visits the Toy Fair (And Awards Fake Prizes)

A Toy Snob Visits the Toy Fair (And Awards Fake Prizes)

Carrie McBride
Feb 15, 2012
After last year's Toy Fair I hinted that I was becoming a bit of a toy snob, but this year I think it's official. If you've never been, let me paint you a picture of the annual tradeshow: grown men shooting marshmallow guns, remote controlled cars whizzing at your feet, potential buyers perched on stools around new games as if at a Vegas blackjack table and groups of people jockeying to have pictures taken with fully-costumed toy mascots. For most, it's a jovial atmosphere and the one time of the year when the industry insiders are all in one place - scouting each other out, making deals and seeing the larger industry picture. Me, I'm an industry outsider.

Frankly, I find much of the Toy Fair demoralizing. It can feel like a sea of plastic, gimmicky, flash in the pan toys destined to fill up our landfills next year. I go every year to report back to you about toys and companies I think warrant our attention. I'm especially interested in sharing with you toys that are harder to find (i.e. less likely to be picked up for $10 at your local Big Box store) from companies who may not have the marketing budget for lots of fanfare.

Each year the Toy Industry Association bestows awards in 11 categories. You can see this year's winners on their website (by category, on the right). Typically, the winners include toys from the big guys (Hasbro, Fisher-Price, Mattel) and typically I find myself scratching my head at the winners. I lack the experience and knowledge to truly judge how these toys fit into the overall toy picture and I'll be the first to say that I have a fairly narrow view of the toy industry. But I am a parent and a consumer and I'm still left thinking, is this the best they can do?

I plan on sharing with you some of my favorites from the Toy Fair over the next few days, but I wanted to start by bestowing my own (fake) awards. (The Snobbies?) And the envelopes please...

"Coolest" New Toy: Stunt Bros by Brinca Dada
Who are the Stunt Brothers? (Or Stunt Bros as I prefer to think of them.) They are slightly mysterious (still in prototype stage for release in the spring), they live on the edge and likely do high fives after completing their daring feats. They race in cars, parachute from the sky and shoot themselves out of cannonballs. Under those helmets, they probably have chiseled cheekbones and 5 o'clock shadows. Note to Brinca Dada: Stunt Sisters has a nice ring to it, too.
Most Innovative Materials: BeginAgain
More and more, thoughtful toy companies are focused on the materials their products are made from. Newcomers (with lots of prior experience under their belts) BeginAgain is on a mission to "take oil out of play" and they have been replacing it with natural rubber, cotton, sustainably harvested woods, wheat starch plastic and bamboo. The play ice cream above, for example, is fully compostable, has a great feel in the hand and, neater still - has a delicious apple scent. More flavors to come, the ice cream will begin selling in the fall.
Most Likely To Be Passed On To Grandchildren: Maileg
Danish company Maileg began over a decade ago and is making a bigger push into the US market. Thank you, let me hold the door. Their toys have a magical, timeless quality and are the epitome of a cherished childhood toy. You can as easily imagine them played with by your grandparents as by your future grandchildren. Shown above is one of their best sellers, the Princess and the Pea set. It is, thankfully, getting easier to find Maileg in the U.S. You can look for shops that carry them in your area here and My Sweet Muffin carries a good selection. (I'm also awarding Maileg my "most beautiful booth" award.)
Most Exciting US Newcomer: Janod
I have a pretty strong case of ETE (Euro Toy Envy) and it has always been with a mix of delight and frustration when I have perused French company Janod's website in the past. It turns out I don't have to move to Paris after all (oh darn) because Janod has just expanded into the US. For over four decades in Europe they have built up their reputation for high quality, mostly wooden, beautifully designed and creative toys and I hope US stores and consumers welcome them with open arms.
Worth Searching Out: Moulin Roty
French company Moulin Roty is distributed in the US by New Hampshire-based Magic Forest and I see them at show after show (they are some of the friendliest exhibitors too). Moulin Roty was started by a bunch of French hippies in the 1970s who refurbished an old mill and turned it into a commune of sorts. To sustain themselves they started making toys beginning with a rag doll and a small car. Today they have a full collection of enchanting toys which you can mostly find in specialty toy shops. If you're not sure where to look, Magic Cabin can help you locate their products in the US.

Best Unplugged Toys: Harrisville Designs
Harrisville Designs is nestled in a charming nook of land in New Hampshire. I know because I've been there. Harrisville has a proud history as a mill town and what's left of it, Harrisville Designs, is proud of their high quality fibers and related toys. The idea of yarn and a loom as a "toy" is an almost outdated concept, but I know I would have loved these as a child. The Pot Holder Loom is their best seller, but could be a great on ramp for other looms, needlepoint kits, etc.

Riskiest Toy I Hope Is Successful: Storytelling by Guidecraft
I know you will be amazed to hear that the best way to engage children in the almost-lost art of storytelling isn't found on an iPad. When everything, it seems, is going high tech, I'm intrigued by companies who take a chance on a decidedly low tech toy. That's the case with Guidecraft's new Steve Light Storytelling boxes. The brainchild of educator and illustrator Steve Light, each box contains resin characters and props and a booklet recounting the story in Steve's words. These will likely be used mostly in pre-school and school settings I'd imagine, but I applaud the risk of the investment in storytelling and hope they find an audience.

Look for more of my Toy Fair 2012 favorites in the coming days!

(Images: Carrie McBride)

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