Posted in Columns

Toy joy

I wonder how often the toys we most remember from our childhoods set the groundwork for who we would become as adults.

Of course, it could be that we were fortunate to have parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or other people in our lives, who recognized our raw talents and set out to encourage them through our play.

I had my share of Barbies – my sisters and I amassed a large assortment of the blond, Stepford-looking dolls with their fabulous wardrobes and inevitably missing shoes.

While Barbie, Skipper, the token Ken (who had his choice of an entire harem of female companions) and one random friend named Kristie, provided hours of fun – they did not fuel my soul the way some other toys did.

My favorite – or, at least, most desired – toys definitely leaned toward the artistic.

I was fascinated by the Spirograph – a series of oval and round plastic shapes, hollow in the middle, that you pinned to paper on top of cardboard. Then you used another wheel, poked the magical colored pen through one of a billion different holes, and let the wheel run around or inside the oval, creating endless patterns.

It was pretty darn cool. I’m pretty sure it was a coveted birthday or Christmas gift – although it may have belonged to my sister. I don’t remember.

The Etch A Sketch never failed to delight me, no matter how old I was. I played with it as a kid, I played with it as a teenager, and I played with the one I bought my kids – and ignored my husband’s comment, “Who did you buy that for?”

The day I figured out how to turn the right and left knobs simultaneously to make curved lines opened new etching – or would it be sketching? – opened new doors. Now I could write my name. I could make people with round, rather than square, heads.

I could even color in my circles, and then turn the thing upside down to erase everything and start over again.

Again – it was pretty darn cool.

Crayons were also a source of joy and delight. When I was a little older (nine or 10), I would sit at a table, a burning candle next to me. After carefully peeling the paper off a particular color, I would place the end in the candle just long enough to soften it, and then smear a blob of melted crayon onto my paper. It was my first foray into mosaic, or pointillism, or some such thing.

And it was very, very cool.

Books were my friends, too. I remember, in particular, receiving a copy of “Charlotte’s Web” when I was in second grade. I don’t remember the occasion – it was a hardbound edition, and most of the books I owned were paperbacks. I still have the book. It sits on my shelf at home, and, on occasion, I hear Wilbur and Charlotte and Templeton and Fern calling out my name, wanting just one more visit. Of course, I oblige, turning the pages with reverence as I did 35 or more years ago.

I also have a battered copy of “James and the Giant Peach.” James was my savior the summer I was 10. I had chickenpox and was stuck inside for two or three weeks, dotted with Calamine lotion and sneaking scratches when my mom or grandma weren’t looking.

Probably my favorite toy, if that’s what you’d call it – was the box of art and writing materials my parents gave me for my birthday one year. I think I was seven or eight, and it may have been a short time after I announced I would be an artist when I grew up. Or, I would write books. Or, I would do both.

The box was made of card-board, and had a handle. I remember unwrapping it, then prying it open to reveal an assortment of wrapped items.

Further paper-peeling revealed artists’ brushes, watercolors, a sketch pad, charcoal and colored pencils, a gum eraser, composition paper – the kind kids use when they first learn to write, with the solid blue lines at the top and broken blue line in the center, and, I’m sure, a few other items I don’t remember.

It was the best thing ever. I loved it because all those things held the promise of hours and hours of being lost in my own world, of writing and illustrating my own stories, of losing myself in my own little creative world.

Looking back, I think I loved it because it was my parents’ acknowledgment of who I was, of where I was going – a celebration of me.

There really is no greater gift than that.

What are some of your favorite toys or gifts from childhood – and why do you think they are your favorites? I’d like to include them in a future column. Write to me at 700 N. Pine St., Burlington, Wis., 53105; or email



I'm a writer, editor, photographer and artist living in rural Southeastern Wisconsin. I grew up in Chicago, made my way to the deep woods of Northern Minnesota and then landed here among the cornfields and cows. It's quite simply my happy place.

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