This year, on the retail toy scene, Elmo serenades shoppers with Shout (a little bit softer now), and Furby, the furry gizmo that sold millions of units several years ago, is back. He has an expanded vocabulary and new facial expressions, that ol' charmer. We examined industry press advisories, retailers' lists, catalogs, Web sites and recommendations from experts at magazines such as Child, Parents and American Baby. We checked out the merchandise. We also considered our wallets -- and yours. That's when we started the quest to find 20 cool toys that cost $20 or less each. Here's what we found. Keep in mind that, like the batteries, tax is not included.
Brandy Hilboldt Allport/The Times-Union
AGES 18 MONTH TO 3 YEARS
During playtime, babies can listen to lively tunes and watch a light show that emanates from the tummy of this Bearthoven toy from Brainy Baby. Switch to classical music mode when it's nap or bedtime. ($15.99; ages 1 month and older; available from www.brainybaby.com.)
It's OK to write on the walls of this kid-size domicile. Motifs for Color Your Own Playhouse include SpongeBob, Dora and My Little Pony. ($9.99; ages 3 and older; available from Target.)
WHAT A RIDE
For a new twist on building blocks and model trains, check out the bold, bright textured cars that make up The IQ Baby Travelin' Train from Small World Toys. They attach to each other with Velcro. ($20; newborns and older; available at major retailers.)
ALL SHOOK UP
Think of this as the "Mega Turbo Rattle." No matter how it's positioned, the Flip & Spin by Infantino claps, twirls and shifts beads about to capture the attention of wee ones. ($13; babies ages 6 months and older; available from T.J. Maxx.)
Encourage children to open Grandpa's Briefcase by P.H. Hanson to look for his 10 pairs of glasses, see his secret spider collection or play an ABC game. The book is filled with 25 activities and 60 objects. ($16.95; ages 2 and older; available at major bookstore chains.) Also look for its companion title, My Granny's Purse.
Adults don't usually need much guidance when it comes to shopping for the Emmas, Sarahs, Garretts and Ryans on their holiday lists. Thanks to TV commercials and well-placed retail displays, children have a wish list in mind by Labor Day weekend. When Halloween masks arrive in stores, the list has morphed many times. If you've tuned out the requests, here are suggestions to help make shopping easier. These are the toys industry trendwatchers and panelists from Toy Wishes magazine say will be at the top of kids' lists.
IPOD GOES TO THE DOGS
I-Dog (Hasbro; 8 and up; $29.99):The robotic Rover feeds on iPod music or any source with a headphone jack.
Magnaworld Magnacity (Rose Art; ages 6 and up; $49.99): This Magnetix building set features more than 100 pieces, including magnetic rods that snap together with steel balls.
CUTE AND CUDDLY
Furby (Hasbro; 8 and up; $39.99): The fuzzy creature speaks in English, or "Furbish," plays games and tells jokes and stories. Sophisticated design allows his facial features to reflect his changing moods.
V.Smile Pocket (VTech; 5 and up; system, $89.99; games, $19.99): This handheld version of one of the top-selling learning system works with all the company's "Smartridges." Plug it into the TV, or use it as a handheld game.
Pixel Chix (Mattel; ages 7 and up; $29.99): These virtual friends go about their own business in their own houses. One of their favorite ways to pass time is to change fashion preferences. Kids can play several five-level handheld games with the Chix.
Black Belts Karate Home Studio (Spin Master; ages 3 and up; $24. …