The Great Antonio
By Elise Gravel
Level 2, grades 1-2
If you’re looking for a historically accurate biography of the Canadian strongman Antonio Barichievich, this is probably not the book for you. Elise Gravel starts out with some whimsical speculation that he was raised by bears, and in several places she brings up the possibility of space aliens being somehow involved.
Forget about that, though: By showing readers the quirks and feats of this outsize man, Gravel does a great job of conveying his spirit.
Antonio was born in Croatia—that much we know—and Gravel has some fun showing us his oversize childhood.
She skips over a less fun detail, one that Antonio himself didn’t talk about: The fact that he spent some time in a refugee camp in Italy at the end of World War II. Instead, Gravel picks up the story with his arrival in Canada in 1945, at the age of 20, and, in a very cute series of spreads, goes about describing just how big he was: His pants were big enough that two smaller people could fit inside them, he could eat 25 whole chickens in a single sitting (followed up with a dozen donuts), and at 460 lbs, he weighed as much as a horse.
In his heyday, Antonio performed such feats of strength as pulling four loaded buses—with his hair; wrestling a bear; and lifting a telephone pole with a dozen men hanging from it. He also set the world record for being a human locomotive, pulling a 443-ton train for 65 feet. He also had some quirks: He sang Italian opera songs and wore his hair in long braids, which he reinforced with metal for more strongman stunts. He also preferred sleeping on the floor, which is not surprising for someone of that size.
Still, that foreshadows what happened next. Gravel summarizes it quickly: “He had a love affair and was sad when it ended.” Whether he was actually homeless or not, he was a street person from then on, spending much of his time in a doughnut shop. While he was eccentric, he was also something of a fixture in his neighborhood and it seems like people had a lot of affection for him, even dedicating a memorial bench to him over 10 years after he died (a detail that is not in the book). At the end of the book, Gravel talks about how everyone knew Antonio—and how surprised they were when they found out his crazy stories were true.
The Great Antonio is more picture book than graphic novel, but it does have some comics elements—in particular, the way that type is sometimes used as a visual element as well as words to be read. She also likes to spread three or four pictures across the page to form a sequence. Her art is whimsical and a bit cartoony, with a restrained palette that is heavy on brick red and light pinks, blues, and greens. That gives the book a bit of an old-fashioned feel, which is appropriate to the subject matter.
Gravel gives us a funny, very kid-friendly story about a gentle giant, someone who twirled children around on his braids, turning himself into a human merry-go-round for their amusement. If she leaves out some of the complications of his life, she leaves in his oversized spirit, grounding it in concrete events (25 chickens!) and keeping a sense of humor and whimsy throughout.