Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood

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9780674503359: Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood

To sort out who's who and what's what in the enchanting, vexing world of Barbies® and Ninja Turtles®, Tinkertoys® and teddy bears, is to begin to see what's become of childhood in America. It is this changing world, and what it unveils about our values, that Gary Cross explores in Kids' Stuff, a revealing look into the meaning of American toys through this century.

Early in the 1900s toys reflected parents' ideas about children and their futures. Erector sets introduced boys to a realm of business and technology, while baby dolls anticipated motherhood and building blocks honed the fine motor skills of the youngest children. Kids' Stuff chronicles the transformation that occurred as the interests and intentions of parents, children, and the toy industry gradually diverged--starting in the 1930s when toymakers, marketing playthings inspired by popular favorites like Shirley Temple and Buck Rogers, began to appeal directly to the young. TV advertising, blockbuster films like Star Wars®, and Saturday morning cartoons exploited their youthful audience in new and audacious ways. Meanwhile, powerful social and economic forces were transforming the nature of play in American society. Cross offers a richly textured account of a culture in which erector sets and baby dolls are no longer alone in preparing children for the future, and in which the toys that now crowd the racks are as perplexing for parents as they are beguiling for little boys and girls. Whether we want our children to be high achievers in a competitive world or playful and free from the worries of adult life, the toy store confronts us with many choices.

What does the endless array of action figures and fashion dolls mean? Are children--or parents--the dupes of the film, television, and toy industries, with their latest fads and fantasies? What does this say about our time, and what does it bode for our future? Tapping a vein of rich cultural history, Kids' Stuff exposes the serious business behind a century of playthings.

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Let the reader beware: after perusing Kids' Stuff, you'll never again be able to cruise the aisles of Toys "R" Us with an untroubled soul. In this history of toys, author Gary Cross relates a joyless world of useless plastic objects and manipulative advertising aimed at children. He begins with a discussion of how the concept of toys has changed since the 19th century, positing that toys are a prime example of a consumer economy run amok. What started out as the manufacture of toys meant to function as educational tools (i.e., building blocks, Legos, etc.) has metamorphosed into Barbies, Power Ranger action figures, and the latest knockoffs from Disney-animated films. What's worse, Cross says, is that parents have virtually been removed from the equation as toy manufacturers first decide what kind of toys to make and then market them directly to children via Saturday-morning cartoons and the backs of cereal boxes. Kids' Stuff is a grim look at the world of childhood and the manufactured fantasies that fuel it.

From the Back Cover:

[A] fascinating new study of American toys...Cross not only gives the reader a succinct history of toys in America, but also examines the reasons for the sea change that has taken place in the toy industry in recent years. He looks at changing notions of childhood and disparate theories of play, and he assesses the declining popularity of the educational toy as a means of developing a child's creativity and skills...He has not written a polemic or diatribe, but an intelligently informed analysis that reveals a lot about how our attitudes toward children, and children's attitudes toward the world, have evolved over the last century.-New York Times

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