So what if the holidays are just a few days away and the dog chewed up the kids' gift list before the shopping was done? So what if you're facing a miserable six-hour drive to the in-laws' or a jammed flight to Vacation Land with your over-stimulated, overtired bunch?
Whose idea was it to leave town during the holidays anyway?
Pour yourself an eggnog and stop worrying. I have the instant solution to your problems: Add a few fun-in-small-places toys and games to the kids' Hanukkah pile and Christmas stockings.
Too easy? Maybe. But I know from past experience they'll keep the kids too busy to fight or whine -- most of the time anyway -- on the trip or even in Aunt Jen's crowded house. Here are some of my picks this season.
For the diaper and preschooler set:
-- Smart Sticks from Playskool are about the same size as a mobile phone and are designed to teach young kids their colors, shapes and animals sounds with interactive games played by pushing the brightly colored buttons. As long as the sounds don't drive you nuts, this is a winner at $9.99.
-- The Teacup Fairy or the Winter Cherries holiday audiotape from the Odds Bodkin Storytelling Library offers ``very old tales for very young children'' from the prize-winning Bodkin, dubbed ``a storyteller supreme'' by Parents Magazine. He does the music, voices and sound effects -- from squeaky fairies to howling wind. The Winter Cherries tape offers Hanukkah, old European holiday folk tales and even a modern rock 'n' roll Santa story. Order for $9.95 each from Rivertree Productions at (800) 554-1333 or on the Website www.oddsbodkin.com.
-- Golden Read & Wear Books are small (just three inches high and two inches wide) and come with a little clip on the back so the tiniest travelers can attach them right to their sweatshirts. There are snowmen, trees, Santa and elves as well as four from the new animated film ``Anastasia.'' Preschoolers who can't read will be happy to look at the pictures. $1.25 each from Golden Books.
-- Any small stuffed creature that is the personification of one of their favorite stories. Your local bookstore is full of them.
-- Stickers galore, the more glittery the better.
For the grade-school crowd:
-- Sure, palm-sized virtual-reality ``friends'' -- Giga Pets, Tamagotchis and Giga Friends among them -- are ridiculous, but they're guaranteed to please and just flying off toy-store shelves. You won't complain when the kids are so engrossed caring for their tiny cyberspace buddies that they don't notice the traffic hasn't moved in 45 minutes. These toys are relatively inexpensive -- Giga Pets start at $9.99 -- and even quasi-educational: Giga Pets were chosen one of Sesame Street Parents Magazine's Top 1997 toys.
Boys will like the brand-new DigiMon, the original digital monster, from Bandai, the makers of Tamagotchis. They could spend an entire cross-country flight helping their $15 pet monsters grow stronger!
-- Lego Systems' FreeStyle Tote set is back-pack sized and comes with 110 pieces, a building plate and handy cardboard tote. $9.99.
If you're traveling by car, consider the set that comes with 400-plus pieces, including plenty of tiny Lego people and a cloth case to stash them in. $19.99.
-- A pocket-sized Vacation Sticker Passport comes with dozens of stickers to note kids' favorite snacks, theme park rides and vacation activities on designated pages. For car trips, I like the Sticker Passport U.S.A., which has a space for each state where the junior travelers can stick the appropriate flag, site or flower stickers. $3.50 from Rand McNally.
I also like Rand McNally's Fun Finder -- Anytime, Anyplace Games. These write-on, wipe-off laminated games come folded like a map and include Bingo (when you see something pictured on the board, like a suitcase or wheelchair, you shout it out and mark it on your board). $4.95.
-- Elizabeth Koda-Callan's Secret Diary is the latest in the enormously successful Magic Charm series and comes with a 16-page story in the front of the diary and a lock on a chain. It's ideal for younger grade schoolers who want to record the highs -- and lows -- of their trip. $13.95 from Workman.
-- Neon-colored markers, a deck of cards and glow-in-the-dark necklaces (great for evening car and plane trips).
For always-bored middle schoolers:
-- The Etch-A-Sketch Book comes with a pocket Etch-A-Sketch, 12 stick-on games to put over the three-inch screen and a four-inch board book with hundreds of other game and drawing ideas. Have you ever played the word game Hangman with your Etch-A-Sketch? Drawn your bones? $16.95 from Klutz Press.
-- Travel Brain Bash's electronic voice directs players to hit one of the four colored buttons in a specific sequence. Watch out if you don't respond in time. There are five different games and skill levels. $14.99 from Tiger Electronics.
Everyone will like the QuizWiz electronic question-and-answer games from Tiger. Will 501 questions keep them going? Try Sports Trivia, Travel Jeopardy or Silly Trivia. $9.99.
-- The new CD of their at-the-moment favorite group (a portable CD player is a great ``big'' gift for junior travelers), a new book by a much-liked author or one set in the place you're going, a funny deck of cards, hand-held electronic action games (boys), beads and string (girls).
Now that the kids are taken care of, what about you? Don't forget to drop a few hints about that book you were eyeing.
Have a good holiday trip -- without too many delays.
(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate