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Toy Stories: Fun Longreads About the Things We Play With

Photo by Justin Chesney for Racked
Photo by Justin Chesney for Racked

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

If you're a kid (or you know a kid, or sometimes even if you're an adult who never, ever interacts with kids), the holidays are a time for toys. And we here at Racked have written a lot about them! So in an effort to provide some topical, seasonal cheer, we've rounded up our biggest toy stories from the last 12 months or so. Enjoy.


Behind the Scenes of Barbie’s Insanely Popular, Painstakingly-Produced Instagram

"There are moments in Barbie’s world where she is a fantastical princess or a mermaid or whatever—this is not the place for that. This is firmly rooted in reality," says Best. "Now, that reality can sometimes be over the top, like staying in the Bristol in Paris or going to the Golden Globes, but that’s what makes it fun and exciting. People love the glamour quotient. Whatever it is, it’s gotta be glamorous."

Barbie has always been closely aligned with fashion—her first career was modeling, after all—and @BarbieStyle has been a way for the brand to experiment with that part of the doll's identity. The vast majority of the clothes and accessories that appear on the channel are one-of-a-kind, designed by Best specifically for Instagram. She wears maroon moto jackets and crop tops with floral midi skirts; she carries mini copies of Chanel and Céline bags.

"We pretend she’s a little person going to do all these things," he says, "so we think, 'How would she do them? What would she wear? What would her point of view be?' If Barbie’s like our celebrity and we’re her team, you don’t want her to falter!"

All Dolled Up: The Enduring Triumph of American Girl

The company is meticulous when it comes to product development, particularly for the BeForever line. "It takes about three years to launch a new character because you do a lot of research," explains Opland. The BeForever books tackle a range of difficult issues—Addy Walker is an escaped slave, Samantha speaks out against child labor—and so American Girl enlists historians, museum curators, and linguists to carefully craft each character's narrative. Research trips are taken (to Santa Fe for Josefina, New York's Lower East Side for Rebecca) and advisory committees are formed.

In the case of Kaya, a nine-year-old Native American girl in the Northwest, American Girl worked with the Nez Perce tribe to ensure that her story, as well as her appearance, were as authentic as possible. As a result, she's the only American Girl doll without her two front teeth showing; the tribe explained that Kaya would have never shown her teeth like that, as it's considered a sign of aggression in the Nez Perce culture. They ensured that everything from the positioning of her braids to the patterns on her "pow-wow outfit" were historically accurate. A visit to the Rocky Mountains' Lolo Trail also contributed to the development process.

How Shopkins Became the Biggest Tiny Toy on the Planet

"The collectibility factor is huge—being able to trade with friends, and collect rare Shopkins," says Adrienne Appell, toy trend specialist. Collectible fads aren’t new; any ‘90s kid is sure to remember Pokémon cards, Beanie Babies, and Crazy Bones (and probably still has a box of them sitting in their parents’ attic.) But Shopkins has proved that the value of collectables hasn’t died in the digital age, an era when passing time by scribbling Crayons on restaurant tablecloths seems obsolete. In fact, the attraction may be even stronger.

"We decided to target it toward girls because there wasn’t really a collectible for girls in the market," Solomon says. "We’re kind of on our own there." Starting in 2012, Moose Toys had seen success with Trash Pack, its brand of collectible toys that resemble little monsters. They decided to take the formula to the girls’ space.

Forty Years Young: Hello Kitty and the Power of Cute

Kitty Con, like the Hello Kitty brand itself, is a lot to take in. There's just so much. So much to look at, so much to do, so much to buy. You can have Hello Kitty nail art done by Sanrio's resident nail artist, Masako Kojima, while you eat a bow-adorned donut from the Hello Kitty Cafe truck and a complimentary Hello Kitty Yoplait yogurt in Friendship Berry. You can revive your phone at a glowing Hello Kitty charging station, take out cash at a Hello Kitty-wrapped ATM, and wash your hands with Hello Kitty soap in the bathrooms. (Rumor has it there was also Hello Kitty toilet paper in the stalls, but that was all used—or stashed in the plastic Hello Kitty backpacks that came with admission—by the end of the first morning.)

You can get free Hello Kitty tattoos, both temporary and very permanent ("Hug Life" in ornate script is a personal favorite), and you can spend gobs of money on merch like Hello Kitty Spam musubi kits and Beats by Dre headphones, all charged on a Hello Kitty credit card that you can sign up for at a kiosk some 20 feet away. You can get schooled in the art of Hello Kitty flower arranging, cookie decorating, and scrapbooking. You can play Hello Kitty Wheel of Fortune and take part in a Hello Kitty cosplay contest. You can Instagram yourself in any number of Hello Kitty-themed tableaux. You can even meet Hello Kitty herself, dressed up in one of her myriad outfits whipped up expressly for the occasion.