A review of kids’ cultural subscription box, Toka Box, exposes a troubling gap in the market and helps South Asian parents develop love and learning of our cultural heritage for our children.
Motherhood and parenting have always felt like a great equaliser among people with children, regardless of colour, culture, class or creed. Amongst the joys and perpetual worry, watching half your genome develop and grow into their own person can bring up questions of identity for yourself. Personally, as a second-generation South Asian born and brought up in the UK, I was someone who used all my might trying to assimilate and keep my cultural identity squared off tightly within home walls and out of the classroom and playground. So it’s often been confronting for me, when my two young girls (aged five and two) both overtly express their fondness to other South Asian children, and when my eldest asks me if I can fill her lunch box with South Indian baked goods that are not covered in my Mediterranean cookbooks, and which I never asked my mum how to make.
Whilst I have embraced my cultural heritage in adulthood, the question of how to pass on cultural traditions and learnings loomed large for me, alongside another element: exposing my kids to informative and engaging content that is representative of them, how they look and their multi-dimensional cultural heritage.
Enter - Toka Box
(Fact - “Toka” means “child” in Sanskrit).
Each box has an activity and a theme related to the month. Source: Toka Box website
Set up by three women based in the US, with each now raising their tween daughters, their key product is a subscription box. Each month you receive a free book, sample activities, a craft activity and a related gift. Why is it a Subscription Box? Well, according to the Toka Box website:
“As busy parents, we know how hard it is to keep children meaningfully engaged without the screen.
We all browse Pinterest for activity ideas and make a mental note to do something with the kids. But that quickly seems to include a trip to the store to buy supplies.
Toka Box comes with a monthly supply of activities along with its materials.
As parents of Indian origin, we know how hard it was to find representational content for our kids. Content that reflects their everyday lives, as well as passes on the values that we grew up with. A monthly theme specific book focusing on representation again takes away the planning and the research required to find the right book!”
So yeah, they get it.
There are two Toka Box subscriptions to choose from: Toka Junior for preschoolers (aged three to five), and Toka Junior (for young explorers aged six to eight). I decided to give this a go for Arya, my five year old. Obviously as a South Asian mum, I rounded up to one year older and opted for the Toka Junior box.
Coincidentally given my own Tamil Sri-Lankan background, September’s Toka Box theme was “Tamil Arts and History”. Arriving in a contemporary and custom-made package addressed to my eldest daughter, Arya, she was thrilled to be greeted by streams of gold foil spilling out as she opened it (which I thought was a regular feature, but turned out to be part of the craft activity). With it came a wooden picture frame, a couple of personalised notes, a printed guide to the month’s offerings: a Nataraja Thanjavur painting with all materials down to the q-tip, paintbrush, blotting paper and glue stick, and this month’s book to explore the art and history of the Tamil people - Dancing in Thatha’s Footsteps.
The story, which Arya insisted on reading as part of her bedtime routine for the next couple of weeks, followed a young Varun who, on accompanying his sister Varsha to her Bharatanatyam dance class, is immediately fascinated and starts to practice it secretly in his room because, well, boys don’t dance. After being teased by his sister, her dance mates, and his Karate class friends alike, it is his Thatha (grandfather) who reveals that he used to dance as a young man. He gives a performance at Varsha’s dance school to encourage Varun to embrace his interest openly and with pride.
This single book exposed Arya to a South Indian dance form, was filled with people of colour, introduced several Tamil words (with accompanying glossary and still slightly dodgy pronunciation from Mum), and broke down gender stereotypes.
And her Natarajah artwork sits in its frame on her wall bookshelf above her bed.
For me, the Toka Box hit a clean strike of cultural education - STEAM-based learning activities, and contemporary representation while also being filled with high quality, sustainable products (no cheap, single-use plastic in sight). A really thoughtfully curated product from start to finish.
Exploring the lack of alternative options
So what’s the catch?
Well, primarily the cost, and international delivery requirements given that Tokabox is based in the USA. It's USD $30 per month plus USD $9.99 shipping, that translated to almost $60 AUD per month. And although I will lay some blame on COVID postage times, my September box only arrived at the end of October.
After spending the best part of a Sunday lockdown afternoon searching for other subscription boxes to compare with Toka Box, I came up with zero in Australia, and even in the UK. There were a small number in the US, but they made Toka Box seem a bargain in comparison.
I did discover that the Indian comic books of my youth, Amar Chitra Katha, which filled long summers spent with my grandmother in an Ashram in Southern India, can be purchased by way of an unlimited digital subscription for a few thousand Rupees. Though, earlier experiences having fished out some old hard copies to try on my kids left them a bit wanting. They were somewhat dated, with overly complicated language that even I struggled to explain to them at their current ages.
Rediscovering South Asian stories - “Amma Tell Me”
Whilst the Tokabox ethos of doing the searching and curating is what appealed to me, I wanted see what other contemporary and diverse content designed for South Asian children there was on the internet. Tokabox itself sells a wide range of books for children aged just a few months to teenagers. I also discovered Bhakti Mathur and ordered her 10-book series “Amma Tell Me” on Amazon.
She brings a modern edge to the major stories like Diwali / Ramayana, Lord Krishna, and how Ganesh got his elephant head. Simply written, strikingly illustrated (maybe a little too strikingly for the younger ones, given the demons and bloodshed that pervade Hindu stories!), and also representative (they are based on siblings Klaka and Kiki asking their amma (mum) to tell them these stories as part of their bedtime routine).
Two things struck me. First, this type of content isn’t easily searchable on e-commerce book sale platforms; and second, there is such a dearth of culturally curated content.
There is a growing genre of children’s books dealing with race, but only a slowly emerging body of content that represents people like Arya and Nikita; content that would boost their confidence and sense of identity and inclusion.
I hope we can see more culturally curated content for children in the future, and I hope it continues to grow in mainstream prominence.
Dharshi Harindra is a specialist in technology and data law, start-up mentor, and FinTech advisory board member. Dharshi is a passionate advocate for D&I initiatives, particularly in corporate organisations, and regularly advises companies on the use of data and technology in an inclusive way. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.