Just because Anthony is only “four fingers old” doesn’t keep him from helping his family members to keep perspective on their challenges. However, being four has trials of its own, and being a four-year-old who is also an Orthodox Christian affords additional unique tests. But Anthony is ready to meet his challenges! He faces them well with the help of his sidekick Mikey (who happens to be a stuffed dinosaur) and of his patron saint, St. Anthony the Great.
In “Anthony, the Great”, Deacon John Sarantakis offers the tale of a young boy struggling to struggle. The book begins with Anthony reminding everyone that whatever they’re going through is not as big as a dinosaur. Readers of all ages can relate to some part of Anthony’s personality: whether to his love for dinosaurs, his desire for adventure, or his determination to be right. They will be challenged by Anthony’s longing to emulate his patron saint; even when everyone – right down to his favorite stuffed toy – does not do things exactly how he wishes they would be done. Throughout his challenges, Anthony faithfully struggles, as did his patron saint. Each time he does so, love and warmth well up in the heart of the person Anthony has blessed by his struggle. By the end of the book, Anthony discovers something BIGGER than a dinosaur, which is really something to realize!
Misha Pjawka’s watercolor, gouache, and pencil on hot pressed paper illustrations interact with the text in a beautiful dance of playfulness and color, charmingly collaborating to enhance the tale. There’s a degree of transparency to the illustrations that effectively communicates the storyline while also speaking to the state of Anthony’s soul: he clearly longs to do what is right. The book offers its readers an unclouded look at his struggle, both through the text and illustrations. (Side note: both young readers and the young at heart will especially enjoy watching Mikey throughout the book, as he wholeheartedly embraces Anthony’s experiences and adds a touch of humor with his take on them.)
The book ends with a brief overview of the life of St. Anthony. It tells some of his story, and includes his icon. There’s just enough of his story there to help the reader appreciate Anthony’s desire to emulate his patron saint, and perhaps to whet their appetite to learn more about this holy saint who is sometimes called the “father of monasticism.”
I can’t help wishing that Anthony were a real boy. I know that I would enjoy hanging out with him and Mikey, and learning how to emulate St. Anthony the Great by interacting with them. Although he is a fictional character, at least I can enter into Anthony’s life for a moment and be challenged by his struggle to struggle, every time I read “Anthony, the Great”.
Purchase your own copy of “Anthony, the Great” here: https://store.ancientfaith.com/anthony-the-great/
Here are a few gleanings from the book, as well as some educational suggestions you could incorporate if you choose to teach a lesson that includes the book. The book is aimed towards children aged 2-10, but perhaps (depending on the makeup of the class) older children would benefit from reading it in the context of a lesson:
“No matter what the day may bring, Papa and Mama often take time to remind Anthony what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.” (p. 10, “Anthony, the Great”, by John Sarantakis, Illustrated by Misha Pjawka)
After reading the whole book once, go back to this part. Ask your class what they think Anthony’s parents told him that it means to be an Orthodox Christian? And what does Mr. Sarantakis mean by “No matter what the day may bring?” Ask the class if they pray the prayer that includes this phrase, “Whatsoever tidings I may receive during the day, teach me to accept them calmly, in the firm conviction that all eventualities fulfil Thy holy will…”. If they do, how does it help them during the day when they get good or bad news? If they don’t pray this one, perhaps you could provide a printed copy for them to take with them, so they can learn it and pray it each morning. Find the prayer in its entirety here: http://www.stgeorgeofboston.org/ourfaith/prayers/morningprayer
“‘We strive to love God more than anything else,’ says Mama. ‘Sometimes that means not getting or doing what we want. That can be hard. Even so, we struggle to put others before ourselves.’” (p. 10, “Anthony, the Great”, by John Sarantakis, Illustrated by Misha Pjawka)
Draw a big heart on the board or whiteboard. Ask your students what they love. They will probably mention things, people, and experiences. Then refer to Mama’s quote about trying to love God more than anything else. Ask your students how they do that, and if they agree with Mama that it is hard. Inside the heart, make a (student-generated) list of ways to love God more than anyone or anything else.
“His patron saint, St. Anthony the Great, had to struggle. A lot… Anthony quietly prayed that he might be more like this great saint of God.” (p. 13, “Anthony, the Great”, by John Sarantakis, Illustrated by Misha Pjawka)
Ask your students what they know about their patron saint. Remind them that the more they know about their saint, the better they will be able to emulate them and the more likely they will feel close enough to their patron saint to ask for their prayers. Encourage them to pray that they will become more like their saint. Here is a blog post suggesting ways to teach children about the saints. Although it is geared to parents, it has some tips that Sunday Church School teachers will be able to utilize as well: http://www.orthodoxmotherhood.com/teaching-your-children-about-the-saints/
“Papa says temptations are chances to show our love for God.” (p. 16, “Anthony, the Great”, by John Sarantakis, Illustrated by Misha Pjawka)
Ask your class why they think it is that, multiple times each day, we pray that God will lead us not into temptation, yet we constantly find ourselves being tempted? Suggest that perhaps Anthony’s statement about what his papa says can help us to wrap our minds around why we are tempted. Find some resources that will help you think about temptations (in the context of the Lord’s Prayer) here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/04/08/on-the-lords-prayer-and-lead-us-not-into-temptation/
The Bible verse stick craft at this page can help your students learn some verses about temptation: https://orthodoxpebbles.com/orthodox-basics/tending-garden-week6/
“…He was struggling to struggle. He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it, and he wanted to do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it! Even so, Anthony, remembering his prayer, decided to act like his saint…” (p. 25, “Anthony, the Great”, by John Sarantakis, Illustrated by Misha Pjawka)
After reading “Anthony, the Great”, as you revisit and discuss the book, when you arrive at this part of the book, ask your students what they think about struggle. Is it bad? Is it good? Why do they say that? Can they give examples of times in their own life when they struggle to struggle? In the Orthodox Christian Church, we recognize that struggle is an important – and necessary – part of our Christian life. Read what the scriptures and the Church fathers have to say about it here (and also find related lesson ideas if it seems that your students need to spend more time learning about this important piece of our faith): https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2018/07/27/on-struggle/
“‘My sweet boy, because you struggled against what you wanted, you helped your family. I’m proud of you. When we do these things, we imitate Christ’s sacrifice and love for us. A love that is bigger and greater than anything else in the world.’” ~ Anthony’s Papa (p. 27, “Anthony, the Great”, by John Sarantakis, Illustrated by Misha Pjawka)
Ask your students to consider how big God’s love is. Anthony’s Papa says it’s bigger than anything else in the world, and Anthony calls it “bigger than a dinosaur”! Encourage your students to draw or write their response on this page. When they’ve finished, allow each student to share their comparison. Talk about all of these big things, and how much bigger God’s love is. Encourage each other to remember God’s big love, and sacrifice our desires as we imitate Christ and His love.