Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: Silan’s Box

Maria Papathanasiou, Greece

Silan's Box bookcover

Review of Το κουτί του Σιλάν [Silan’s Box] by Άλκηστη Χαλικιά [Alkistis Chalikia] (Illustrated by Ντανιέλα Σταματιάδη [Daniela Stamatiadis]). Athens: Eκδόσεις Ίκαρος [Ikaros Publications], 2017.

Silan, is an eight-year-old boy who was forced to leave his country and live in a new homeland, in Greece. He lives in a refugee center. He goes to a new school. He does not speak the same language as the other children, and he always carries a little box with him – so precious that he never leaves it anywhere. He keeps it with him constantly and does not share its contents with anyone. He has a friend with whom he spends a lot of time at school. He loves to paint while he is with her, but he would also love to play soccer with the other kids at recess. Nonetheless, he cannot let his box out of his hands, so he just observes the others from the bench. However, sometimes, he can play hide-and-seek, as long as the weather is still cold so that he can hide his box in his jacket. Unfortunately, when the weather warms up, he stops playing because he is not wearing the jacket anymore. The children ask him every day about the contents of the box and often try to guess what his hidden treasure might be. They convert their curiosity into a game and play pantomime with their guesses. Each of them imagines something different. They dive into their own minds, trying to think what they would shield in their own box if they were in Salin’s place.

What gives us strength? What keeps us going as we move through the unexpected upheavals of life — so precious that it fits in a box… that hides and guards our personal treasure?

This story by Alkisti Halikia puts young readers in touch with the sensitive issue of war and refugees. The narration in the first person, the immediacy in the speech, the description of Silan’s everyday life at school and the snapshots of the special conditions of his life help readers identify with the main character of the story, especially nowadays with the war in Ukraine. Silan is a dark skinned, handsome, sweet boy with red cheeks and lips, round eyes and a sparkling look, as painted by Daniela Stamatiadi — one of those children you want to hug as soon as you see them, look him in the eyes and dive into his thoughts and memories.

The focus and springboard of curiosity and anxiety until the end of the story is the box. This little treasury of our mental endurance and strength in the difficult upheavals of life – our people and our moments – the veil of protection from evil, the retrograde. One would say: the marrow of our personal course in the world. Because each of us has a box with a completely different content, that is probably reshaped, changed, revised and even transformed constantly during our lives.

This is usually the first theme of the discussion that arises with participants in a philosophical search community. When the participants are children, they wonder what they would put in a box, what they would take with them in case they had to leave their home, their country, perhaps even their family.

How can I take all my toys and clothes in a small bag?
Why should the bag be small?
How much time would I have to decide what to pack?
Will I ever go back to my home, my school?

In recent years, many children have arrived in Greece after a precarious journey through other countries, unaccompanied, until they reached a place where they feel safe. So many children have abandoned everything to save themselves from the ravages of war and conflicts. They are mostly teenagers; they strive to learn the language, find a vocation and adapt to a different culture.

When the participants in the discussion are adults, they may review their life and reflect on its path, asking how different small objects can represent their memories and thoughts. They usually end up taking just very few clothes and pictures. A few said they would grab a cloth with their home’s smell and shield it in a small bag. That is when a very interesting discussion begins: “What is home?” and “What does ‘home’ feel like?” These are topics that naturally interest both adults and children.

Another vigorous topic of conversation that usually arises with children is that of the war. Lately, my 2nd grade students have heard a lot about the war in Ukraine, and therefore this story prompts profound questions:

Is there a good and a bad war?

This question provoked a discussion on the topic of ‘war’ where students were stating:

  • If people are killed, then it should be bad!
  • But what if you kill someone who attacks your family, your children, your friends…
  • Would the family of such a person ever find out that they tried to kill other people who have done no harm? And then how would that family feel? It must somehow feel terrible!

And that is how the next question arose:

  • Is someone who kills to protect his children, his home, his homeland a hero or a murderer?

This question intrigued them, and therefore they continued:

  • I have seen superheroes attacking and even killing the bad guys and everyone is happy about that, aren’t they?
  • I would certainly appreciate whoever would protect me, my family, my friends…

And, because there had been a discussion about the Greek Revolution for their Independence in previous days, another question emerged:

Is it good or bad when you make a revolution to gain your freedom when that provokes a war?

These and similar questions prevailed in our discussion which only stopped when a student brought the discussion back to the box, wondering about the size of the bag the children are taking with them when leaving Ukraine for another country (they all have seen pictures in the news).

Then a new discussion started which we postponed for the next day, giving them the opportunity to think about what they would put in their own box. This discussion preceded the narration of the end of Silan’s story. I carefully avoided revealing the contents of the box to them until I heard their own thoughts.

The story does not disclose Silan’s origin but comments on how children always find their own way of contact even when they do not speak a common language. Human relationships, communication can be achieved even when we do not speak the same language, because the codes of interaction are varied and rich, and empathy can be possible, especially when children’s minds are triggered with stories like this one.