05/07/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
The son of an amateur inventor, Michael Wood grew up watching his father tinker with gizmos only to set them aside. So when someone else got a patent for a contraption similar to one of his dad's, Wood swore he would someday act on what he calls his own "crazy ideas." He has kept that vow. His $50 LeapPad—a computer book that reads aloud when an electronic pen is dragged over words—bypassed robotic bowzers and edged out Razor scooters to become the bestselling toy this past Christmas season, the first educational product ever to do so. "We take the rote stuff," explains Wood, 48, "and make it fun and interactive."
Wood made the leap into inventing in 1990, when he designed an alphabet pad embedded with talking computer chips to help his son Mat, then 3, understand that letters represent sounds. Five years later he decided to take his idea to Toys "R" Us. The chain promptly placed a $1.6 million order, so Wood quit his job as a lawyer. Smart move: Last year his company, LeapFrog, racked up $170 million in sales on its 100 toys, from stuffed frogs that spell to talking globes. Parents and educators alike snap them up. "All my students can spell their names because of LeapFrog," says Dallas-area kindergarten teacher Roselyn Ross. "They can see themselves learning."
Wood's toys may encourage kids to hit the books, but Mat, 13, who lives part-time with his dad and step-mom Connie, 44, in Orinda, Calif., doesn't buy it. Though LeapFrog helped Mat in school, reading takes second place for him. "I like football," he says.