December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

Maryann Van Laten has a bad case of Furby fever. “It’s the most popular toy that no one’s ever seen,” she laments. Still, the 45-year-old Illinois mother of two isn’t giving up. “I’m prepared to go into a store and fight for a Furby. If only,” she adds miserably, “I could find one.”

Van Laten is one more parent caught up in this year’s version of 1996’s Tickle Me Elmo frenzy. This $29.99 bundle of fake fur—going for up to $300 on black market Internet sites—runs on batteries and a computer chip. A million have been shipped, another million should be available by Christmas. It begins speaking its own language (“Furbish”) and adds English phrases until it’s finally fully fluent in kid-speak drawling words like “boor-ing” and “paaa-rty.” Furbys sing, dance, laugh, snore, make rude noises, talk to other Furbys and seem to do everything but homework.

“It started out as just a ball of fur,” says toy inventor Dave Hampton, 46, Furby’s creator. He was inspired by the Tamagotchi virtual pet. “I said, ‘That’s not a pet,’ ” he says. “I want to make something kids can hold in their hands—a real pet.”

Hampton, who lives in a farmhouse in California’s Tahoe National Forest with his wife, Cindy, and sons Mark, 13, and James, 10, took nine months to perfect Furby. An electrical engineer, he concocted the Furby language with the help of his kids. “Mark,” he says, “made me put in the burp sound.” The toy, on which he figures to make a small fur-tune, has proved interactive in unexpected ways. “Last night,” says Hampton, “my 10-year-old said good night for the first time in Furbish.”

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