Sometimes it seems like the only toys around are those that are licensed by TV and movie characters. If it's not a Power Ranger or a Lion King, what good is it?

But there's more to toys than meets the screen, and innovative ideas don't always get lost in the shuffle. Here are three toy tales that prove otherwise:ZOLO

Named as toy-of-the-year by FamilyFun Magazine, Zolo is twisty, twirly, squiggly, wiggly, knobby, blobby and polka-dotty. The idea is to let kids' creativity run wild, mixing and matching the highly stylized pieces to create an infinite number of playsets. Zolo features curious bodyforms, colorful connecting sticks and crazy end pieces.

It is the brainchild of a couple of New York graphic designers, Sandra Higashi and Byron Glaser, who came up with the concept but then couldn't find a toy manufacturer who would take a chance on it. Eventually they decided to market it themselves and approached the Museum of Modern Art, which had been known to encourage new product development. Although they broke all the rules, they say in Print magazine, the high-priced Zolo ($175) became MoMa's best-selling toy.

Eventually, with an eye to making the toy more affordable and in cutting down the commuting time between the United States and the factory in Jakarta, Indonesia, the designers parted company with MoMa. Zolo, at suggested retail price of $20-$40 is now marketed by Ertl, along with several other innovative toys including JibbaJabber, a wacky, soft-fabric doll that gives off unique sounds when you shake it, and Bumble Balls, with an internal motor that makes them jump and twirl in unpredictable ways.

HOOBERT

David Kirk has been making toys and children's books for 15 years. His books are bright and witty and often filled with bugs. He is, his latest book ("Miss Spider's Tea Party," Scholastic/Callaway) modestly points out, considered by many to be central New York's finest bug poet.

His toys are equally appealing. He is founder of New York's Ovicular Toyworks and the Boston-based Hoobert Toys, which offer a variety of wooden pull and put-together toys in bright colors.

In Print magazine, Kirk tells the story behind Hoobert. In 1989, he and his wife were cleaning his toy factory in preparation for moving in. As they scrubbed, swept and painted, they tried to come up for a name for the new company. "We couldn't find one. We were distracted. In fact, we were starving. Every day for weeks when we went to our lunch boxes we found them emptied of the sandwiches and sweets we had packed in the morning. Apples and carrot sticks were all that remained. In place of the missing items, we never knew what we would find, sometimes an abandoned bird's nest, sometimes a nicely rounded stone. Once in my box I found the tail of a raccoon carefully placed in a neat twist where my potato salad had been."

The Kirks ended up driving to a local diner for lunch every day. But one day, his keys disappeared. He finally found a spare, but when they stopped at the diner, they heard a pitiful whimpering from the back seat of the car. There, with his tattered kerchief caught in the door, was a little white dog. "When we picked him up, we found the missing keys under him. Safety-pinned to his kerchief was a small tag with one word written in faded crayon - Hoobert."

How can you not like toys that come from a place with that beginning? (Locally, one place they are available is The Tutoring Toy.)

KEWPIE

Dolls may come and dolls may go, but few have enjoyed the popularity and appeal of the Kewpie doll, this year celebrating it's 80th birthday. Kewpie was created by artist and author Rose O'Neill in 1909 and first appeared in an illustrated poem. From the 1920s through the '70s, Kewpies came in all shapes and sizes and were both a favorite toy and a prized collector's item.

This year, Kewpie has been brought back, this time in its first soft-bodied, huggable doll form. But it still has the same topknot of hair, side-glancing eyes, a protruding tummy and that irresistible cuteness.

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Additional Information

Consider this: You have more than 120,000 dolls, games and toys to choose from this Christmas season. Old standbys, innovative newcomers, action figures based on TV shows, dolls and toys tied into movies, quirky games, 3-D puzzles, crafts, electronics, racing cars and more - they're all competing for attention at this time of year. Kids' toys are, after all, an $18 billion industry.

All children are different, and the kinds of toys they like best will be guided by their own interests and abilities.

In general, advises Consumer Reports, versatility is one hallmark of a good toy, since toys that encourage children to use their minds have lasting power. To play with and enjoy it, a child must experience some immediate success and must face progressively tougher challenges as he or she becomes more proficient.

Other things to keep in mind when buying toys:

- Consider toys that relate to the child's age, interest and abilities - not yours.

- Examine the toy closely. If possible, open the package to look at all the parts. Check the box or individual parts for safety warnings.

- Look for sturdy construction. Toys that appear flimsy probably are. If a child is rough on toys, pass up models that look as though they won't stand the abuse.

- Examine assembly instructions. If the job seems too involved, ask whether the store will do it.

- Don't fall under the misconception that bigger and costlier toys are better. Simple, inexpensive toys such as building blocks and crayons can lead to very creative play.

The Toy Manufacturers of America offers some general suggestions on choosing suitable toys for children in various age groups:

BABIES: Birth to 1 year

Even babies need an assortment of toys. Since infants respond to smell, taste, sound, touch and sight. Properly selected toys provide a baby with opportunities to learn about size, shape, sound, texture and how things work.

In general, choose toys that: have pieces that are too large to swallow, are lightweight for handling and grasping, have no sharp edges or points, are brightly colored and non-toxic.

Brightly colored, lightweight toys of various textures stimulate a baby's senses. For young infants, toys to look at and listen to are best. Soft dolls or stuffed animals made of non-toxic materials are fun to touch and hug but are not designed for sucking or chewing. Make sure the seams cannot be easily torn or bitten open.

TODDLERS: 1 to 3 years

A busy toddler needs toys for active, physical play - especially things to ride and climb on, such as a low tricycle or wagon. Outdoor toys such as balls, inflatable toys and a sandbox with digging toys are good choices. Toddlers begin to enjoy make-believe play just before their second birthday. To imitate the adult world around them, they use play food, appliances, child-size furniture, simple dress-up clothes and dolls. Children in this group are particularly interested in sorting and fitting toys, all kinds of blocks and simple puzzles. Toddlers also enjoy musical instruments suchas tambourines, toy pianos, horns and drums, as well as listening to tapes.

PRESCHOOLERS: 3 to 5 years

Preschoolers are masters at make-believe. They like to act out grown-up roles and create imaginary situations. Costumes and equipment that help them in their pretend worlds are important at this stage. Some of the many possibilities include pretend money, play food, a toy cash register or telephone, a make-believe village, fort, circus, farm, gas station or restaurant, a puppet theater, dolls and doll furniture.

In a child's private world, a favorite toy is both a companion and protector. Dolls and teddy bears, for example, help children cope with difficult moments. Transportation is also fascinating to young children. Truck, cars, planes, trains, boats and tractors are all fun at this age and beyond. Larger outdoor toys, including gym equipment, wheeled vehicles and a first two-wheeled bicycle with training wheels are appropriate now.

Visualization and memory skills can be sharpened by play that requires use of imagination or mental computation, with the introduction of board games, electronic toys and word and matching games.

SCHOOL AGE: 6 to 9 years

Board games, table-top games and classics like marbles and model or craft kits help develop skills for social and solitary play. In experimenting with different kinds of grown-up worlds, fashion and career dolls and all kinds of action figures appeal to girls and boys. Printing sets, science and craft kits, electric trains, racing sets are important to children in examining and experimenting with the world around them.

Children of this age also like active physical play - bicycles, skates and other sports equipment are appropriate. Even though group play is enjoyed, children at this stage also play well by themselves. Paints, crayons and clay are still good selections, as are costumes, doll houses, play villages, miniature figures and vehicles.

SCHOOL AGE: 9 to 12 years

Children begin to develop specific skills and lifelong interests at this age. Give considerable attention to hobbies and crafts, model kits, magic sets, advanced construction sets, chemistry and science kits and puzzles. Peer acceptance is important, and active physical play in team sports is popular. Social and intellectual skills are refined through board, card and electronic games. Video, electronic games and table tennis are popular; dramatic play holds appeal. Painting, sculpting, ceramics and other forms of artistic expression continue to be of interest, as do books, tapes and musical instruments.

TEENAGERS

After age 12, children's interests in toys begin to merge with those of adults. Electronic and video games and computer-based systems will be of interest. Collectors of dolls, model cars, trains, miniatures, etc., often begin their hobbies in their teenage years.

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10 things to avoid

1. Broken toys.

2. Toys, meant for young children, with small parts

3. Giving toys meant for older children to a younger child.

4. Toys with sharp points or rough edges.

5. Uninflated or damaged balloons (for children under 8).

6. Electric toys (for children under 8).

7. Sports equipment without protective gear.

8. Leaving toys on stairs.

9. Toys not played with properly (hitting with them, throwing, etc.).

10. Any toys used without sensible supervision.