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The Great Antonio

by Elise Gravel

In 1946, 21-year-old Yugoslavian Antonio Barichievich arrived at the port of Halifax as a refugee. He soon adopted Montreal as his hometown and remained there until his death in 2003, becoming a beloved local legend during his lifetime. Antonio was huge – six-foot-four and 465 pounds – and strong, once pulling a 443-ton train 65 feet. He made a career as a wrestler, once even taking on a bear as an opponent. But despite his intimidating stature and strongman routine, he was also incredibly kind and loved children. In The Great Antonio, prolific Montreal author-illustrator Elise Gravel creates an engaging, entertaining portrait of the gentle giant.

The Great Antonio Elise GravelA cross between an easy-to-read graphic novel and a picture-book biography, The Great Antonio gives readers a small glimpse of the friendly giant’s life, but leaves them wanting more. Information is presented in bite-sized pieces, allowing for a larger-than-life drawing on each double-page spread.

Gravel’s quirky, cute artistic style is perfectly suited to the subject matter. She is well known for creating interesting-looking characters, and this book is bursting with them. The Great Antonio is a notch above her other works (including the Disgusting Critters series and I Want a Monster) in quality – emotional and touching in a way the others are not. It is clear that the author remembers the real-life Antonio with abundant fondness.

The original French-language title – published by Les Éditions de la Pastèque in 2014 – measures roughly eight inches by 10 inches. For this English translation, publisher Toon Books has shrunk the dimensions down to approximately six inches by nine inches. This may not seem significant, but the extra space afforded by the original dimensions makes a big difference in the book’s visual impact, especially considering its subject matter. Those unfamiliar with the original edition are unlikely to miss the extra page space, however.

The Great Antonio is a biography with heart. Gravel presents her subject with warmth and humour, and challenges readers to find out more about him. Appropriate for one-on-one sharing as well as newly independent readers, this book is sure to be a hit with curious children. The real Antonio would have been humbled by this effort.