It’s that time of year again, when Christmas bumps into Hanukkah, parties collide with work and we try, yet again, to spend time and money twice.
That can’t be done, of course, but you can have a fairly relaxed holiday if you shop early so you can find what you want, if the toys you buy are well made, if they spark a child’s imagination and if you know which toys, books, CDs and apps will suit your child best.
If you want to buy dollhouse for your child or your grandchild, you might want to get a handsome wooden Princess Castle or a Medieval Castle (Melissa and Doug; $100). Others good choices are Top Agents, the remote-controlled car that shoots missiles (Playmobile; $100); the Gattling Dart Blaster that shoots 30 darts in 20 seconds (BuzzBee Toys; $58) or Legends of Magic, which have many, many magic tricks, props and DVDs and come in three versions (Fantasma Toys; $40, 55 and $100) or the Fireworks Light Show in My Room (Uncle Milton; $35). Sometimes a shy but dexterous child can only perform when he slips into another persona while an anxious 6-year-old feels wonderfully brave when he points his gun-like toy towards the ceiling and produces a fireworks display with sound effects.
For the pre-K who wants to be as daring as her big brother, look for a sled called the Arctic Flyer, so she can fly over the snow (Flexible Flyer; $30); the Spooner Board, which will teach her the balancing tricks she’ll need to ride a skateboard or a snowboard someday (Spooner; $40) or the Zipfy, a miniluge that’s safe enough for 5-year-olds (Flexible Flyer; $40).
Your daughter may say that she’s too old for dollies, however, or your son may say, “Puh-leeze, boys don’t play with dolls”, but they’ll both love Squishables (Purple Gallinule; $20-40) because any stuffed animal is really a dolly in disguise, even if it’s soft, lovable, round-as-a-ball and looks (more or less) like a kiwi, a manatee or a narwhal.
Games such as “Madeline at the White House” will interest any child who lives in Washington or wants to visit the city (Briarpatch; $20), and Bag-o-Loot — a wild card game that’s a cross between Uno and rummy — is a hoot (LB Toys; $10), but nothing can beat that longtime favorite,“Apples to Apples” (Mattel; $25).
You can stuff the stocking or provide minor Hanukkah gifts with an old-fashioned harmonica (First Note; $13); Zibits, the small, remote-controlled robots that can do everything but the laundry (Senario; $15-17) or Energy Sticks, which teach basic electricity so well (Amazing Toys; $8), but if your child is devoted to Thomas the Tank Engine, get Mavis and the Fuel Car or Scruff the Garbage Car for him instead (Learning Curve; $22). However, a fashion diva in her preteens or early teens would much rather have Zebra, the duct tape with the wild designs, to make a wallet or even a purse (DuctKTape; $2 a sheet; $7 a roll).
Despite the annual influx of holiday toys, books still thrill most children, beginning with “Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes”, the board book by Mem Fox (HMH Books; $12). After that there’s “When Life Gives You O.J.” by Erica S. Perl, author of the beloved Chicken Butt series (Knopf; $16); “The Flint Heart,” an old story made new by Katherine Paterson — the Louisa May Alcott of today — and her husband, John Paterson (Candlewick; $20); “Wonderstruck” for the ten-and-up crowd, written by Brian Selznick, who combines text and graphics so beautifully (Scholastic; $30); “Dead End at Norfelt,” a funny, touching story by Jack Gantos (Farrar Straus Giroux; $20); “Okay for Now” by Gary Schmidt, whose hero draws support from his town rather than his family (Clarion; $17); “Heart and Soul” by Kadir Nelson on the great leap that African-Americans have made (Balzer and Bray; $20); “Drawing from Memory” by Allen Say (Scholastic; $18) on post-war Japan; “The Perfect Square” by Michael Hall (Greenwillow; $17) and, for those readers who like good laughs and good writing, “Secrets at Sea” by Richard Peck (Dial; $17). And for those children who like to laugh more than read? There’s “Big Nate on a Roll” by Lincoln Pierce (Harper; $13), in both cartoons and text.
And then there is “Math Perplexors,” which delights young math whizzes (Mindware; $13); the bilingual “Latin America Coloring Book” (Putumayo Kids; $10) and two fine CDs, “Music Play for Folks of All Stripes” by Jim Gill ( www.jimgill.com; $17), and “The Soldier’s Tale” by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Maestro Classics; $17).
There is also a lovely new app called “Van Gogh and the Sunflowers,” designed to appeal to both sides of the brain (iTunes; $1.99) and one to help you keep the peace, even in the car. Simply download Nomad Play, the first app that lets children use a stylus to paint on any touchscreen, and in four colors, too (Nomad Brush; $18). And may you drive in peace.
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