Small Town by Phillip Gwynne, illustrated by Tony Flowers

“At school we learn about refugees.

War.

Famine.

And persecution.

People with nowhere to live.”

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords about Small Town, Phillip and Tony.

Your new picture book Small Town (Puffin Books) tells an important story about a small town losing its residents and how renewal happens when refugees arrive.

How would you describe your protagonist Milly’s personality?

PG: I think reading is a collaboration between the reader and the writer. Sure, I supply the words – and the illustrator offers his wonderful illustrations – but each reader will create their own version of Milly.

How have you both made the story engaging for young readers?

PG: I’m always hyper-aware of the rhythm of my text – it needs bounce to drive the story forward. When I write picture books, I’m always reading the words out loud to myself (my kids think I’m crazy!) imagining I’m one of those wonderful readers you see at library story times.

TF: When I start a new book project, I like to find the main characters and develop the setting by weaving the real world in as much as possible. This seems to infuse the illustrations with life and believability. Some of the characters in the book are based on people I know, the town of Gong Gong is a mash up of many small towns that I have driven through and the things in the story that are directly from life, i.e. Granny Mac Motorcycle.

How have you incorporated humour into the story?

PG: Because Small Town is about refugees, a hot political issue, there was a danger that the text could be polemical. In fact, the first drafts I wrote were overly didactic. It was only when I let my natural writer’s inclination to amuse, to make jokes, have a say, that I found the story.

TF: In the illustrations I have added in the character of Milly’s dog. Not just because I love drawing dogs, but also because they become a great source of humour. I am always looking for ways to bring humour into an image, Granny Mac became another character that allowed that to happen. I think that if I am having fun drawing the illustrations, it shows on the page and people will enjoy reading the book.

Your child characters are proactive in solving the town’s problem. How do you think children can show agency?

PG: I think children live in tough times – there is so much doom and gloom, so much despair, but children can make a difference, of course they can, especially if they work together. This is the central message of Small Town. And when I think about it, it’s pretty much the central message of all my writing.

Which aspects of a real small town have you based your words or pictures on?

PG: I grew up in a very small town – 200 residents, 10 of who were in my immediate family. But Small Town was actually based on a school visit I did to Pyramid Hill, a town in Victoria, which had been rejuvenated by an influx of migrants.

TF: I grew up in a smallish coastal town in Tasmania, the town is surrounded by farming land and has that country town feel. While I now live in Hobart, I often travel to the North West Coast of Tasmania to visit family. It was on these trips that I did my research for Small Town, pulling into as many small towns as I could, exploring the back streets, looking for building and vistas to build the town of Gong Gong.

What is so special about a small Australian town?

PG: We’re a very urban country, but a lot of our myth-making occurs in country towns. They’re magical places, but we neglect them. Maybe one of the unintended benefits of COVID will be that instead of jetting off overseas more people will be tempted to visit, and support, these small towns.

How have you shown how the residents of Gong Gong have embraced the refugees with such a welcoming spirit?

PG: Refugees often get such bad press, we all know about the African gangs in Melbourne, but there are many towns where refuges have been welcomed: the Karen people in Nhill, Yazidi in Toowoomba, Hazara in Mount Barker to name just a few. This is the experience I attempted to capture in Small Town, how simple contact can quickly sweep aside prejudice and distrust.

TF: I really enjoyed the play between the before and after transformation of Gong Gong. This is summarised in the endpapers of the book. But it is the Mayor’s negativity that provided the opportunity to show how the town might benefit. One of my favourite images is of the refugees unloading their cars and painting the houses.

Tony – What media have you used and why?

TF: I have chosen to use a traditional illustration media to create the images for Small Town. It is a combination of water colour, coloured pencil and ink. Partly because I enjoy working in these media, I like the colour palette and the hap-hazard splashes and splats that you can achieve working this way. I also chose them because they bring warmth, which is important when dealing with a topic that has the potential to be so sad. The warmth helps bring the characters to life and reflects the intent of the story. 

Tony – Both your opening and closing endpapers induce great feeling. They are both very different. Apart from the figures, how did you create such a contrast?

TF: I could let the opportunity go to use the endpapers as an extension of the story telling. This book really lent itself to this idea. I wanted the front paper to feel like an establishment shot in a movie. It sets the scene for the story’s setting, rural country town, isolated in the semi-dry farming landscape with a river snaking through it. This hopefully sets up the story and give a sense of place. For the last endpaper, I wanted it to be a celebration of the town’s transformation. To create contrast, I have set this image at night-time, moved in closer, so the viewer feels more a part of the scene. Rather than just the distant town of the first endpaper, the last paper shows a festival in full swing, people dancing, playing basketball and eating. I want this to feel like every country fair that I have ever been to rolled up in to one image.

Although hot off the press, what responses have you had from your readers about Small Town?

PG: The response to Small Town has been nothing short of amazing. People are sick of bad news stories, they’re looking for hope, for community, for an antidote to these troubling times we live in and Small Town is obviously delivering that.

TF: I have had nothing but positive feedback, people are loving the story. As I am more well known for humorous illustrations in chapter books, some people are a little surprised to discover I can draw more than just farting ninjas, not that there is anything wrong with a farting ninja (unless you are trapped in an elevator with one).

Phillip Gwynne

What other books have you created?

Phil’s work can be found here.

Tony’s work can be found here.

How can readers contact you?

PG: You can contact me via email – phillipgwynne@ozemail.com.au

TF: I can be contacted at tony@flowersink.com.au

Tony Flowers

Small Town is a very affirming, heartfelt story, as the problem about dwindling population in a small town is resolved.

Phillip and Tony, thank you for combining your talents to create this thoughtful, engaging book.

3 thoughts on “Small Town by Phillip Gwynne, illustrated by Tony Flowers

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