Christmas dread of Chinese lead

Photo: istockphoto.com/Karen Keczmerski

Worried about your child's safety but having trouble finding a flashy gift toy that isn't made in China? Join the club.

Every manufacturer affected
Remember how this whole mess got started last spring with RC2's second recall of Thomas the Tank Engine trains? By the third recall we had all learned that the paint on any black, red or yellow item in this series was contaminated with lead. Since then Mattel and Marvel have recalled entire lines of toys. Editor's note: You can find a complete listing of the recalls of lead-tainted toys at the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Still, there are good alternatives made according to North American safety standards, and they're not always more expensive than the lead-coated plastic junk available in bigbox stores. With the inflated Canadian dollar, you can now shop online and save at American toy manufacturer's websites.

Choo-choo alternatives
Don't be put you off RC2's Thomas products for the rest of your natural life. Whittle Shortline Railroad is a trustworthy family-owned outfit that produces cheap, safe and handmade toy trains. Based in Missouri, the company has an excellent nice selection of handcrafted trains including a 5-car CNN trainset that sells for $60 US (or about $55 loonies). The line of steam engines sell for $11 each, while the four cars set of the Pensylvania Railroad (PRR) cars will put you back about 46 Canadian dollars. Whittle is also the sole manufacturer of the ‘Little Engine that Could' whose engine and cars will fit your Thomas tracks very nicely. Whittle ships by U.S. Post and charges flat U.S. Postal rates although.

Go with the original
Besides trains, Mattel/Fisher Price Inc has recalled toys like Dora the Explorer, Big Bird, Sponge Bob Squarepants and even the beloved Elmo. Marvel has also recalled its Chinese-made Curious George dolls. (This does not apply to all stuffed Georges, just the ones with plastic faces). It's next to impossible to find a substitute for something as proprietary stuffed toy with brand identity, but there are some really attractive alternatives. Vermont Teddy Bears has an astonishing selection of Christmas and Chanukkah bears that include festive Pandas and Koalas (okay-okay, Koalas are not really bears). My personal favorite is the 15" ‘Jewish Classic Bear' who sports a gold bowtie emblazoned –oi gevald!-- with the Star of David. Such a mensch, that bear!

A sticky bang
Of course, an extraordinary way to surprise and delight that special little someone is to arm him unexpectedly. With this in mind, the Marshmallow Shooter Company offers 16 decorator models of its air-powered shooters that can launch a miniature marshmallow 50 breathtaking feet. If, however, they are fired from second floor windows they go even farther, far enough to hit nasty Uncle Fred in the back of the head as he enters his car after hastily leaving the family gathering. Honestly, if you believe as I do that miniature marshmallows only gum up and ruin hot chocolate, this is by far the best thing to do with them. The shooters cost –such a bargain!—less than $8 apiece, and at that rate you can arm the entire family and have a celebratory war for Christmas, Chanukka, Kwanzaa, Diwali or ‘Eid.

Xmas reading
Well, if these ideas don't help. I have one more for you. Books! Especially well-illustrated storybooks…They're fun, educational, (not made in China) and very, very special. Every kid loves a good one, because –of course you sit down and read it together again and again. If you can't find something appropriate you can cheat and give a bookstore gift-certificate, but finding new picture storybooks are one of the most pleasant things I do at Christmas time and I recommend you try it. It reduces stress and gets you in the mood. Book companies like Fire the Imagination/Barefoot books and Candlewick Press have some excellent books, games and puzzles for children. Another recommendation is The Frog Who Wanted to See the Sea by Guy Billont.

So, get in the mood now, people, and be of good cheer!

Giles Slade is the author of the award winning book Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. He is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.