You may not have heard of the North American International Toy Fair, but chances are that the hundreds of thousands of toys and products debuted there this past weekend will be on your — and your children’s — radar soon enough.
Featuring over 1,000 exhibitors, the four-day trade show at New York City’s Jacob Javits Center serves as a giant preview for the latest trends in the toy industry. Some of the hottest toys shown at this year’s fair feature some familiar faces. Hasbro debuted action figures from upcoming films such as “Spider-Man Homecoming,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Other toys hitting the shelves are sure to become instant classics, with manufacturer WowWee previewing some of the most buzzed-about new toys. Its upcoming projects include Elmoji, an Elmo-inspired robot designed for young kids to teach them pre-coding and problem solving skills, and Fingerlings, adorable plastic baby monkeys that come to life with over 50 animations, including sneezing, sleeping and blowing kisses.
But the real stars of the show were the toys that either through their outward appearance or packaged backstory fostered diversity and started a conversation about inclusion for children and adults of all ages.
“The manufacturers respond to their environment,” said Isabel Carrion-Lopez, a toy specialist at the Toy Industry Association. “As they hear what their customers want, they respond with toys that respond to that.”
That approach is exemplified through the creation of the Jazz Jennings doll, the world’s first transgender doll modeled after the 16-year-old activist bearing the same name. Tonner Doll Company was inspired to create the doll after Jennings’ “20/20” interview special in 2007.
Dolls highlighted the push toward inclusion more than any other toy previewed at the show. New York Doll Collection is launching five new “city girls” that not only represent all of New York City’s five boroughs, but also embody different identities and backgrounds. One doll in the collection is an immigrant from Australia, while another has dyslexia.
“You know these are real-life girls, helping real-life American girls living out their dreams and their fears, and it’s really exciting,” said Beth Silver, managing director of New York Doll Collection.
From the bigger toy manufacturers, Mattel’s latest Barbie collection is its most diverse yet, with the eponymous line featuring dolls of various shapes and sizes and 11 different skin tones. Barbie’s “Sheroes” collection also incorporates a diverse group of real women, including model Ashley Graham, ballerina Misty Copeland, gymnast Gabby Douglas, and director Ava DuVernay, who comes with her own director’s chair.
American Girl, another Mattel brand, broke gender barriers by introducing “Logan,” the first boy doll in its 31-year history. (It should be noted that Logan does not have his own standalone story, but rather is a character in American Girl Tenney Grant’s storyline).
Aside from the physical dolls themselves, American Girl has made inclusion efforts through its various doll accessories, including making wheelchairs, crutches, hearing aids and diabetes care kits among others.
“We’re really on a mission to just give girls more,” said Julie Parks, director of public relations for American Girl. “We’ve been hearing for years they want more characters, more diversity, more experiences [and] more inclusion.”
As the estimated $26 billion toy industry continues to grow, expect to see gender-neutral and diverse toys becoming more prevalent. Most offerings at this year’s toy fair are not yet available and will be rolled out in the months leading up to the 2017 holiday season.