Book People: Tony Flowers on ‘Advance Australia Fair’

Tony Flowers is one of my favourite illustrators in the Australian children’s book industry and I eargerly anticipate each new project with his name on in it. His latest work is ‘Advance Australia Fair’ and I was so intrigued about the story behind this book that I asked him a few questions.

As a national anthem, Advance Australia Fair has faced controversary, so I was interested to see Tony’s take on this song from 1878; as a book, I really wanted to use ‘Advance Australia Fair’ in the classroom as Tony has expertly captured some iconic Australian locations in his illustrations. As previously mentioned, I am already an out and out Tony Flowers fan, and his previous title with Philip Gywnne ‘Small Town’ (full review here) is a book I return to time and time again in the school context and I can see that ‘Advance Australia Fair’ is going to get the same level of use in my lessons. Tony’s illustrations have captured so much of what many of us love about Australia – its diversity, unique landscape, the light (oh the light!) and the sense of pride we have in our communities.

You can see my previous interview with Tony Flowers here.

Image Credit: Tony Flowers

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Chatting with Tony Flowers

How did you come to find yourself illustrating a book based on the ‘girt by controversy’ Australian National Anthem?

It was about two years ago; I was relaxing after a day of presenting to school groups at the Byron Bay Writers Festival when I received a call from my publisher at Scholastic. She asked me, ‘How would you feel about illustrating the national anthem?’. After my initial hesitation, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to see if I could make the anthem into an engaging narrative.

After a few hours of scribbling away at my sketch pad, I became quite excited by the idea. One of the challenges was that the Australian Government holds the copyright for the anthem. I created a rough layout, and Scholastic submitted it to the prime minister and Cabinet to get approval to use the text.

One of the things that I liked about developing this idea was the opportunity to illustrate the national anthem without making it look like a cliché, a travel pamphlet or flag-waving festival to everything Aussie – green and gold. I have always believed that we are not a nation defined by its sporting achievements. Rather, we are defined by our landscape, location in the world and the people who live here.

Australia means different things to different people, and to be charged with the responsibility to create an illustrated version of an anthem was certainly a challenge. Especially as the anthem itself is often the subject of controversy. This sometimes confusing song from 1878 has had to be explained to school children since the ’70s; I can still remember learning the meaning of the word ‘Gert’ from my school days.

Given the anthem has no characters, how did you ensure young readers connected with the story, given this is often done with characters? 

When I first thought about this book, I was tempted to create a central family that we could follow around the country. I wanted to do this as I realised that the text had no main characters. But I remembered a conversation that I had had with the very talented Sarah Davis. It was about the danger of defining a character and locking in a visual meaning for a particular ‘type’ of person in an illustration. I realised that if I were to draw a family, I would effectively say that this is a typical Australian family and that anyone who felt that they didn’t identify with them might feel excluded. It seems to me that the most typical thing about Australian families is that we are a diverse bunch and, therefore, hard to typify in a single version as an average family.

So rather than follow a character’s journey through a story, mainly shown in the third-person perspective, i.e., the audience viewing the story from outside looking in. I decided that for Advance Australia Fair that this imagery should be immersive; to achieve this, the whole book is illustrated in full double-page spreads as I wanted the reader to view the narrative from the first-person perspective. i.e., the audience is in the story discovering their surroundings. Through this visual treatment, I hope people will be drawn into the book and find a relevant meaning behind the words of the text for themselves.

The cover of ‘Advance Australia Fair’ is sophisticated and very beautifully designed and illustrated – was this a collaborative process between you and the graphic designer or did you have a strong idea about how you wanted it to be?

 I feel like an Author talking about an Illustrator with this answer. But I can’t take any credit for the beautiful cover design of the book. While I certainly create illustrations with space and as much flexibility as possible so that a designer can work their magic. I didn’t see this cover until months after I had submitted the illustrations for scanning. A wonderful Sydney based designer; Nicolette Treanor is responsible for the design. While I have never met her, I feel that with our shared love of chickens and dogs, we would get along well. One of the things that I really like about the cover is that there it is all about the landscapes and those classic ochres and blues.

When you talk to people about drawing and ask the classic questions of what don’t you like to draw? People often reply, something like ‘I hate drawing hands’ or ‘I hate buildings’. For me, it was landscapes. It is not that I hated them; I just was confident in my ability to execute them well. It has been something that I have been working on and it was illustrating my book ‘This Old Thing’ by Cassandra Webb. That really allowed me to build my confidence in my landscapes enough to tackle Advance Australia Fair. In ‘This Old Thing’, I base a lot of the landscape backgrounds on the work of war artist Henry Fullwood. Going through this process taught me a lot about watercolour landscape painting. I am a little bitten by the bug now and love practising my landscape painting. I guess that is why I like the strong use of landscape on the cover so much.

The internal images picture a number of iconic Australian landmarks and some less obvious settings. Can you tell us a bit about each of the images? 

One of the feelings that I wanted to convey in this book was a sense of what it was like to live and travel in Australia, not as a tourist but as a lived experience. It meant that out of the 1000s of possible scenes, I could only choose 15 images of Australia to bring meaning to the text. I also know that I will forevermore be asked, “Why didn’t you draw…….(insert location or activity or sporting event here)”.

The planning of the pages had to show a good spread of Australian scenes from around the country. It had to be a mix of urban, rural and remote landscapes. It also had to show Australians doing everyday things.

What follows is my rambling thoughts and motivations for each spread in the book. Think of it as the book version of the director’s commentary on a movie.


Inside covers: as a great teacher once said, ‘You must always read the endpapers’. She was right. I always look forward to creating the endpapers in my books. These set the scene for the visual narrative that is about to unfold.

Front endpapers:

Beginning of the Journey

The station wagon version of my mum’s old HR Holden, note the orange case strapped to the roof. While I have an old yellow VW Beetle (see if you can spot it in this book) that sits in my drive, I often dream of having another old classic car and high on the list for nostalgic reasons is an old green HR Holden sedan. I guess drawing one in my book is a cheaper for of therapy than buy one

Image Credit: Tony Flowers

Back endpapers:

End of the Journey

Grey nomads are driving back down the same road I have managed to squeeze my Triumph Bonneville motorcycle on the back rack and the same orange case on top of the trailer. This might be a crystal ball look into my future.

Spread 1

Sydney Harbour view from the botanical gardens. I wanted to open the book with one of my favourite places in Sydney. I love when you walk down through the botanical gardens toward circular quay. On a warm summers’ day, you have the shade of the fig trees, the reflections off the harbour, ferries chugging past, and you get your first glimpses of the Opera House through the trees. Add the exciting assortment of people you will come across, making this a perfect place to start the book, “Australian all let us rejoice. For we are one and free.”

Spread 2

The best way to demonstrate just how girt we areas a nation is to show the ever-present sea in views. Being a Tasmania boy, I thought it would be great to show a southern Tasmanian sheep farmer above dolerite cliffs and sea needles. This image was drawn while Hobart was a buzz with talk of the final voyage of the Aurora Australis.

Spread 3

Northern Territory, Uluru, a view of Uluru and Kata juta (in the background). This image is the result of a research trip to Uluru and Kata Tjuta national park in December 2019. I consulted with the Anangu people (as much as possible during a Covid lockdown) via the Uluru-Kata/Tjuta national parks service to ensure that they were happy with my image of Uluru and members of the team the community. I was issued Permit #5554 when my image and use Uluru was accepted. The feedback that I received from the Anaugu people was very positive. When you look at this page, both reptiles (the thorny devil and the long nose dragon) depicted were based on sketches of specimens in the wild that I spotted on my research trip. The wildflowers shown were also flowering at the base of Uluru and in the valley of the winds (Kate Tjuta)  during my visit.

Research Trip to Uluru. Image Credit: Tony Flowers
Research Trip to Uluru. Image Credit: Tony Flowers

Spread 4

Tasmania, Salamanca Place, Hobart. I am guessing anyone who has visited Salamanca as a tourist is wondering where the market is. As a local, the Salamanca market is one day of the week and definitely not the reason I go to Salamanca. Every Sunday morning, an assortment of motorcycle riders in Hobart meet up in Salamanca place and go for a morning ride. I am often there on my Bonneville. In this image, I am standing by my old red and black bike and my current black and white bike (like dog drawings, this bike is often seen on my social media posts).

The image also shows two women walking two dogs. This is my wife Ceri, pictured in red with red boots, walking our two first dogs, Lilly and Holly (sadly long passed), and then in a Mondrian De Stijl style dress, Ceri is walking my two current dogs, Thor and Freya.

Spread 5

South Australia, based on the interior of the Capri Theatre in Goodwood, Adelaide. The challenge was to find interesting was to depict “In joyful strains then let us sing”. I created a fictitious rock band (Rex Rock) to give that classic Aussie pub rock band concert feel. I also used this to thank some of the people who helped me make this book possible. The crowd on the left page has a number of my regular baristas that supplied the coffee to fuel my morning drawing time. I have never been to the Capri Theatre, which is something that I will have to do on my next visit to South Australia. But I was drawn to its Art Deco lines, and I think this style of architecture is wonderful and often overlooked in Australia.

Spread 6

Another South Australian image, the Remarkable Rock, Kangaroo Island. I wanted to show that wonderful experience of being alone in a vast landscape. This is another location that I haven’t been to. I found the rock formations to be particularly captivating and dramatic. Creating the perfect contrast to the expansive sea and sky.

Spread 7

The Southern Ocean fishing boat. I didn’t want to show a predictable night sky image for ‘Beneath the radiant Southern Cross’. Instead, I have chosen to show some of the people who work while we sleep, with the Southern Cross reflected on the sea’s surface. The boat is based on a working fishing vessel in Constitution docks in Hobart.

Spread 8

Northern Territory, Borroloola. The image of people working the land in a dry, dusty landscape might have been one the most cliche Australian scenes that wanted to depict. But I hope that I have done it in a fresh way to allow reviewers to discover something new in the scene. This image was put together from photos of my cousin Simone and her family working their brahman cattle farm in Borroloola (NT). One of the things that I thought most people would not have seen or know little about was the bull catcher attachment to the 4 wheel drives. This image shows one of the bull catches attached to the side of a cut-down Toyota. Much like any image of the sea, a strong sense of powerful movement can be created in an image of a herd of large animals moving as one. I had a lot of fun making the ground in this image feel gritty and the air feel dusty.

Spread 9

New South Wales, Tamarama beach to Bondi beach cliff walk.

Having lived in Sydney in the past, I have quite a few memories of places and activities that would have been good to include. I was going to do an illustration of the farriers, but I decided to go more land-based. One of my favourite walks in Sydney is the Coogee to Bondi cliff walk. I particularly like the eroded sandstone cliffs and final approach from Tamarama beach when you look past the Bondi icebergs pool to Bondi beach.

Spread 10

Western Australia, South Mole Lighthouse, Freemantle. I have been lucky enough to visit Freemantle some years back. It is a special place for many reasons; I became set on the idea of a lighthouse as this talks of the region’s maritime history. For this image, I also wanted to include a memory from my childhood. My father loved going fishing, and I remember the evening and early morning fishing trips. I lost my father when I was young (9 y.o.). So, I wanted to create an image of him as an older man, off fishing with one of his grandchildren. An opportunity that they both unfortunately missed out on.

Spread 11

New South Wales, New England region (Armidale). When I lived in Canberra, I became familiar with the New England regions of NSW. Over many road trips that stretched from Griffith to Tenterfield, I was always taken by the vast flat plains that drive through. In the background, when you look east, your view is framed by the Great Dividing Range.

Spread 12

Antarctic territory, research station. As I am now based in Hobart, there are always regular reminders of the connection between Antarctica and Australia. As the text reads “With courage let us all combine”, I could think of no better way to depict this courage than with the challenging and inhospitable climate in that Antarctica. I also wanted to reference back to the second double-page spread in the book that shows the start of the final voyage of the Aurora Australis, this image some the destination of that journey.

Image Credit: Tony Flowers

Spread 13

Victoria, Flinders Street Station, Melbourne. Flinders street station is truly one of the most iconic and shared experiences anyone visiting Melbourne has. Coming from the small Tasmania coast town of Ulverstone, I remember as a child visiting Melbourne, I was always blown away by the grandeur of Flinders street station, the hustle and bustle of the streets and the sound of the trams rattling by.

Spread 14

Queensland, the Gabba, Brisbane. As I wanted to include a sporting event in one of the spreads for this book, I had to look for an event as universal as possible. As the football codes are very regionalised, I settled on netball or cricket. I also wanted a massive crowd, so, unfortunately, netball lost out to cricket. If I ever get a chance to create another version, I may reverse this decision. As for the location, when I started doing my research, I was reminded that the Gabba has a pool deck. This concept makes me smile; I also wonder what anyone viewing a game at the Gabba from outside of Australia must think when they see it.

Image Credit: Tony Flowers

Spread 15

Anywhere in Australia, The beach of a winter’s day

I wanted to finish the book on a generic stretch of beach, and the curve of the beach as it stretches around is such a familiar sight in Australia. I also like the idea of the family walking on the beach in cooler weather, throwing a stick for the dog. I was tempted to show sandcastles, budgie smugglers and sunburn, but I feel that that side of Australian beach life is heavily represented in books. I wanted an alternative and finished the book with the perfect family dog walk day.

Thank you for visiting me again at Children’s Books Daily Tony, I always enjoy our online chats and banter.

February 22, 2022 at 08:17PM Megan Daley