Toys for Thought


Nothing undoes holiday cheer faster than the specter of toxicity in all those brightly wrapped toys. The beloved Cookie Monster, Thomas the Tank Engine and Diego have all been implicated in lead paint recalls. At the heart of this problem is cheaply made, cheaply produced and cheaply sold goods. While it’s not possible for parents to completely tune out the directives to buy, buy, buy, they can make their purchases from companies that share their values. We’ve discovered several worthy sites online, including Blue Orange Games which makes award-winning strategy games from durable wood, like the insanely addictive Tic-Tac-Toe-esque Gobblet!, the Froggy Boogie memory game, and Quack Quack, which involves fast thinking and animal sounds. The company has committed to planting two trees for every one used to make their games. Another site we"ll frequent this holiday season is Planet Happy Toys which sells a wide variety of natural wooden toys from German company Haba, from adorable animal teethers to wooden fruits and veggies for a toddler’s play kitchen. There are bioplastic sand toys and tea sets, organic dolls and ImagiPlay’s rubber wood Arctic and rainforest figurines. Finally, Folkmanis Puppets sells some of the most realistic (and nontoxic) animal puppets we’ve ever seen, including Sierra Club puppets that include an armadillo, a boa constrictor, a hedgehog, a wooly mammoth, a peacock and many, many more. —Brita Belli


Playing cards of all kinds make perfect stocking stuffers, and there are eco-versions of every variety. Xeko is a competitive, two-player card game that sends kids on a mission to create the strongest "xeko-system," using real-world conservation locations. There are three game options: "Mission: Madagascar," "Mission: Costa Rica" and "Mission: Indonesia." Based on the myth of "xeko," or a secret knowledge of ecological order, the game teaches its players the delicate balance between using resources to support endangered species while conserving for the future. Game materials are made from recycled and recyclable materials. For the younger set, Go Fish for Wildlife and Wild Cards from Birdcage Press allow children to play games like "Wildlife Rummy," "Crazy Apes," "Animal Snap!" and "Go Fish," with an educational twist. Each deck features a different wildlife theme ranging from "Sea Creatures" to "Mam-mals." An added bonus: each card provides the animal’s name in Spanish. Trivia fiends will go for Knowledge Cards, produced by Pomegranate and The Sierra Club. The decks include topics such as: home conservation, shrinking one’s ecological footprint, endangered species and saving energy. The cards are printed on recycled paper, and a portion of the proceeds is donated to environmental causes. —Julia Hirsch

CONTACT: Xeko, (206)632-3708; Birdcage Press, (650)462-6300; Pomegranate, (800)227-1428.


The genius in Kee-Ka‘s baby clothes is the simplicity of the designs (and the squeezably soft organic fabric). The company has added a seasonal twist to its original line of "cupcake," "monkey," "peanut" and other favorite names-for-baby clothes with "little elf" shirts and the message "shalom" coupled with a dove on bibs and burp cloths. Even more essential is a red-hooded winter poncho, made of certified organic cotton fleece and fastened with a wooden toggle. It’s perfect for over-the-river-and-through-the-woods winter travel. —B.B.

CONTACT: Kee-Ka, (718)302-9665


Aroma Naturals Candles, made with 100 percent essential oils, use all-natural vegetable and soy waxes and all-cotton, lead-free wicks to help you de-stress. Some citrus-scented candles have a fake orangey smell, but Aroma Naturals" Ambience candle smells like an orange grove in summer. Or try unwinding with Relaxing, a lavender and tangerine-scented soy candle. The calming, soothing combination is meant to restore balance. —Jessica Ann Knoblauch

CONTACT: Aroma Naturals, (949)263-1400.


Organic bath products, lotions and beauty products abound, and several companies make beautiful gift sets for giving. EO‘s French Lavender scented care basket is made with pure essential oils (hence the name "EO") and lavender from a family owned farm in Provence. The body oil, lotion, bubble bath and bath salts, along with hand cream and body polish, provide serenity in several forms. Nurture My Body takes its presentation seriously—the lotion, cleanser, moisturizer and shampoo come in a wooden box lined with straw and gold paper. Made of all-organic ingredients, the lotion contains ginger and clove bud, and the cream cleanser features avocado oil and rose water. Each bottle comes tagged with an inspirational message. A manlier take on the gift basket is Aveda’s "Shaving Ritual" set, complete with shampoo bar, shave cream, after-shave balm and blue oil balancing concentrate, which promises to relieve stress and raise energy with peppermint and chamomile. —B.B.

CONTACTS: EO, (415)945-1900; Nurture My Body, (866)440-8137; Aveda, (888)823-1425.


You know those flavored vodkas found in mixed drinks and shot glasses all over college campuses? Well, the makers of a new "green" vodka distilled and bottled in Iceland called Reyka want nothing to do with those citrus-infused cocktails. They want their vodka to taste like vodka. And Reyka uses geothermal heat in the distillation process. The still is powered by steam produced from molten lava rock and the steam is sourced from Deildartunga, one of the largest hot springs in the world. Reyka ($23 for 25 ounces) is 80 proof and offers a light spiciness and underlying savory grain in the nose. For an American green vodka to toast the holidays, there’s Vodka 360, which is quadruple-distilled and packaged in 85 percent recycled glass bottles with 100 percent post-consumer-waste labels. —J.A.K.

CONTACT: Reyka Vodka; Vodka 360


Designer Melissa Kolbusz’s line of jewelry, [wired], is made entirely from reclaimed and surplus industrial materials. Though old alternator wires and used transistors might sound like the antithesis of fashion,

Kolbusz’s pieces have a distinctiveness that comes from mixing shape, texture and material, like dangling earrings made of rubber washers linked with stainless steel. Each handcrafted piece ($20 to $400) is dictated by the found material, so you won’t have to worry about your gift being anything less than one of a kind. —J.A.K.

CONTACT: [wired], (312)666-4589



Arctic Tale (National Geographic Books, $30), the adult companion book to the 2007 film of the same name (adapted by Donnali Fifield), follows the lives of Nanu, the polar bear cub, and Seela, the walrus calf. Adapted from the movie narration, the book details the parallel life cycles of the two animals. But this wildlife tale introduces a new challenge: global warming. Both animals face the catastrophic effects of human waste and the melting ice shelf. The book is illustrated by 150 gorgeous color photographs of Arctic wildlife and scenery. The last chapter, "The Making of Arctic Tale" includes the crew’s experience in the Arctic, and some behind-the-scenes anecdotes recounting risky wildlife interactions. —Julia Hirsch


Joseph Romm, the author of The Hype About Hydrogen and a former Depart-ment of Energy employee, has a new book entitled Hell and High Water: Global Warming—the Solution and the Politics—and What We Should Do (William Morrow, $24.95). Romm’s book is comprehensive on the current science, the fallacies advanced by climate naysayers, and the array of possible solutions. He knows how to simplify tough concepts for the average reader. Emissions, he says, are like water flowing into a bathtub. Atmospheric concentrations "are the water level in the bathtub." Romm’s book would have been improved by first-person interviews and field research. Too often he refers back to his now decade-old DOE experience, when the real action is in labs and skunkworks around the world. Romm makes a good case for plug-in hybrid cars, but he doesn’t assess the automakers" progress toward actually building them. Despite this, the book is well-researched, and right in nearly all its prescriptions. —Jim Motavalli


To evaluate Newt Gingrich‘s book Contract with the Earth (Johns Hopkins, $20), it’s worthwhile examining another one of the former Republican House Speaker’s contracts, this one with America. It came during the 1994 Congressional elections, and was credited with helping the Republicans snatch back the majority. The "Contract" promoted compensation for businesses affected by environmental regulations, allowed industry-packed "peer panels" to gut laws based on pseudo-science, and tried to impose a numerical limit on regulations from the EPA and other federal agencies. So the guy has a lot to answer for. He does that here, writing with Terry L. Maple. Gingrich offers some good ideas, but his book (with a generous foreword by environmentalist E.O. Wilson!) is overly cautious, relies too heavily on consensus politics, and insists there’s no conflict between a healthy environment and strong economic growth. Implemented as a plan, it would simply be too slow moving to accomplish much of anything in the increasingly short time we have left to save our planet. —J.M.


What would you do if you could hear the Earth cry for help? This is the question Lee Welles asks young readers in her series Gaia Girls (Chelsea Green Publishing, $12.95). The first book, Enter the Earth, takes place on a farm in upstate New York. Here, Elizabeth Angier, a 10-year-old girl, helps her parents run the farm that has been in their family for centuries. However, a factory farm soon threatens to take away Elizabeth’s land. Enter Gaia, an embodiment of the Earth in the form of an otter. Gaia gives Elizabeth mystical powers, and she begins the fight for her farm, all while dealing with real-life issues (like her best friend moving!).

The second book in the series, Way of Water, takes readers across the globe to Nagoya and Goza, Japan. Miho, also 10 years old, has just lost her parents to watery graves and moves in with her grumpy uncle. Miho meets Gaia and is given powers related to water.

These books carry an empowering message—children can make a difference. And Welles details the eco-facts behind her stories at the end of the books (which are printed on 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper). —Jessica Goldberg


It’s about time somebody wrote a popular book about bears. Bears: A Brief History by Bernd Brunner (Yale University Press, $25) is a welcome addition to what we know about the fascinating bruin, which exist worldwide in eight distinct species. Scientists used to think there were many more; in fact, as Brunner notes, they had a really hard time classifying bear species for hundreds of years. A researcher named D.C. Merriam made it his lifework to classify 86 separate subspecies of grizzlies, "a classic example of taxonomic over-splitting," the author writes. There are really interesting and accessible chapters here on the theology of "spirit bears" (the Cherokee, for example, believed that bears were transformed humans), bear personality, bear hunts, bears as pets and performers, bears in zoos (a section that ties in with Brunner’s previous book on aquariums), Inuit interaction with polar bears, and enduring fear of bears. It seems that, as with the great whales, we’ve only recently begun to recognize the important environmental niche filled by this charismatic mega-fauna. —J.M.


Michael Shnayerson‘s Coal River (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25) is the third book about mountaintop removal mining this year, the previous two being Lost Mountain by Erik Reece and Moving Mountains by Penny Loeb. Reece’s book, set in eastern Kentucky, is lyrical and personal. Loeb’s book, covering the same West Virginia terrain as Shnayerson"s, is locally based, close-up, a bit technical for average readers. A staff writer for Vanity Fair, Shnayerson brings a journalist’s craft to the subject. If a mountaintop movie is made, it will probably be based on his version of events. In a story with many characters, he finds clear heroes—Joe Lovett, a crusading and athletically built lawyer, Judy Bonds, a deeply rooted Norma Rae-type activist—and villains—especially Don Blankenship, the scowling, fiercely aggressive head of Massey Coal. But all these authors are equally dismayed by what they see happening in Coal Country. The epic horrors of removing mountaintops, crushing streams and poisoning entire communities leaves them struggling for apt metaphors. If surface mining remains an abstract concept for you, Coal River is a good place to start, but those other books are worthy, too. —J.M.