James Carter talks to Cast of Thousands about writing lyrical non-fiction

Once Upon a Raindrop

Written by James Carter and illustrated by Nomoco

Published by Caterpillar Books

There are plenty of websites that explain the water cycle - but who wants to wade through boring old text and clip art when they could be reading a picturebook like this? Written by a poet who knows how to make words sing, Once Upon a Raindrop is nonfiction with a difference – an imaginatively immersive “experience with facts” that’s every bit as refreshing as the clear blue water bubbling across each page. Pleasing aesthetics are a key feature of this lovely book - every word, every blank space, every drop of ink is placed for maximum effect, and Nomoco’s stylishly understated illustrations are a particular delight. 

“Sun heats sea which turns to clouds that trail the sky and drift around…”

Once Upon a Raindrop makes a great starting point for watery activities of all kinds. Try dripping and dropping ink and watercolour onto paper to see what kind of marks you make, then use dip pens to turn your drops into finished artwork. Observe water on the move - as rain, in streams, or disappearing down the plughole – and collect words and phrases to describe it. Use your wordhoard to compose your own poems, then illustrate.

Explore the movements made by ‘cloud, rain, river, sea’, then add sound effects and music to help you act out the water cycle. Add costumes and props to create your own performance!

And don’t forget about water-themed science opportunities, too – depending on the age of your kids there are ideas online for everything from floating and freezing to colour-mixing and chromatography. For more ideas click here

Poet and performer James Carter

James Carter is a prize-winning poet, educational writer and non-fiction picturebook author who travels the UK performing in schools and running workshops. CoT was delighted to catch up with him in the middle of his busy schedule to find out more about his lyrical nonfiction and how he shares it. 

Welcome to Cast of Thousands, James, and thank you so much for talking to us!

What attracted you to non-fiction? How did this collection come about?

About twenty years ago I had the idea of writing non-fiction picture books in verse for younger readers but I didn’t have a clue how to go about it, so in the meantime I concentrated on writing children’s poetry. Four or so years ago I wrote a couple of non-fiction books for Harper Collins’ Big Cat reading scheme. I very much enjoyed doing those, but for my next non-fiction book I wanted to write something freer that focused more on narrative and less on facts. The 50th anniversary of the moon landing was coming up, so I wrote Once Upon A Moon – using a structure that included a main text telling the story of how the moon was formed and an acrostic at the back with a few key facts. 

I liked that structure so much that I followed it with Once Upon A Star and sent both of them to the fabulous Caterpillar Books (part of Little Tiger Press) who snapped them up! Their senior editor, Pat Hegarty, said it would be good to do a series, and I was thrilled.

As far as non-fiction subjects go I’m not really an expert in anything - I simply have a passion for learning about a topic afresh and then finding a simple, direct way of communicating that to a young reader. There’s something about coming to a subject for the very first time that helps you see it objectively, and experience it perhaps with a greater sense of wonder.

The first draft of Once Upon a Raindrop concentrated on the origins of water, how fundamental it is to life, and how water is unique to earth in its manifestations of steam, ice and liquid water.  Many children’s information books cover the water cycle so I didn’t want to do that all over again and the first draft didn’t cover it. But Caterpillar Books felt it was vital so I included it. I always listen to advice from editors, as you can’t be objective, let alone be right all the time! Now I’m glad we included that aspect of water, as it’s a fundamental part of water’s story.


I’ve done over 30 books now and these are by far the most rewarding and exciting ones I’ve ever written. It’s such a privilege to be paired with these incredibly talented illustrators from around the world – and what’s more to work with such an enthusiastic and innovative team at Caterpillar Books. There are only two names on the cover of Raindrop – but there was a very committed and talented team that produced it!

Illustration by Nomoco from Once Upon a Raindrop          copyright Nomoco for Caterpillar Books

What led you to want to write lyrically about topics like space and the water cycle? 

I wasn’t consciously trying to be lyrical, it just came out that way. Each of the books in this series has its own tone and feel, and (as in many of my stand-alone poems) I’ve tried to use simple, child-friendly but expressive language, full of imagery. However I don’t want the language here to be too ornate, as I’m there to tell a story and to serve as a narrator, not be someone stringing fancy words together!

American poet Robert Frost said that a poem is ‘a fresh look and a fresh listen’ and that’s what I always try to achieve in any poem or book – to put a new spin on something, to show that subject in a new light.

I love the creative challenge/process of each book - researching in libraries, watching documentaries, going to museums, and then reducing all that down to what is effectively a quasi-timeline of a topic told in verse for children. 

I’m personally interested in very few things – mainly books, music, the natural world, science - but as a writer I’m potentially interested in e v e r y t h i n g. And being a poet I’m obsessed with words, the musicality of language, and the magic that happens when words are weaved together. So it’s my job to find the right words and the right combinations of words to explore and express any topic I choose to write about – be it in a short stand-alone poem or a non-fiction book in verse. But I don’t see these books as poetry per se - their primary function is to inform and enlighten, and as I write them I’m 100% preoccupied by the information I am trying to get over. I don’t really even notice I’m writing in verse at times, having written poetry for some 22 years now! 

The text for Once Upon a Raindrop is a pleasure to read aloud – every phrase sounds perfectly balanced, every word seems to have earned its place. What’s the composition process like from your point of view? How long does it take?

With this series - more than any other books that I’ve written - it is crucial that they read well out loud. I go over the text many thousands of times to check that it flows, that the scansion is just perfect.  Knowing that age group  (4-7s) well means I instinctively know what I can and can’t include. Nothing too detailed, esoteric, indulgent or complex. It’s all about telling the story in the most succinct and expressive and engaging way I can.

Often - in a Dylan Thomas-like way – I will chant the verses out loud as I’m pacing up and down in the kitchen, doing the ironing or pushing a trolley around the supermarket. All that helps!

The editors too read it out loud to each other to test it. In the main, these books will be read by a busy adult to a child or group of children, so it’s essential that there is an immediate flow to the language and that the words come off the page with great ease. This takes much editing, and however frustrating it may be, it’s essential I get it right! My editor, Isabel, is rightly very thorough on this issue – and we will often ping pong verses to each other until they are really tight on the page and have maximum readability! 

Each of these books take about three months to research and to write and to craft and to get a good, solid working draft going that I can then send to my editors.

Do you write your text independently of your illustrator? What input do you have into the illustration and design process? 

I work totally independently. Apart from the odd last-minute tweak to the text, the manuscript will be finished and complete before the illustrations are considered. I rarely if ever give instructions about the images – except in the book I’m writing at the moment, which uses labels to go with specific illustrations that are required. But that’s a one-off.

Clearly I’m concerned about the visuals, but I have total trust in Caterpillar Books as they create such gorgeous books. Unless I have a very strong opinion on an image or spread, I go with whatever they show me at the various stages. However, with the book we’re working on now I suggested we move the sequence of spreads around, so that the text flows more logically. But that kind of thing is rare. With all four books that have been completed so far in the series – Once Upon A Star / Once Upon A Raindrop / The Big Beyond / Once Upon A Rhythm, I’ve been absolutely delighted with the illustrations. Each book has its own illustrator from a different part of the world and has its own unique feel and aesthetic as a result. Isn’t that a great idea? But much praise must go to the designers as they bring so much to each title, and it’s that trio - that interplay of those three elements  - image, text, design - that makes each book what it is.

Nomoco was THE perfect choice to illustrate Raindrop. I couldn’t be happier with what she has done. She perfectly complements my words, and amplifies and embellishes upon so many elements of the text. She has a real lightness of touch, and there’s a gentility to her images that’s just perfect for this book. Moreover, her illustrations are so liquid, so fluid that they almost seem wet on the page!

Illustration by Nomoco for Once Upon a Raindrop         copyright Nomoco for Caterpillar Books

Do you think nonfiction books are still important in the age of the internet?

Oh, yes! Well, for me they are! From the internet you can get facts (and sometimes non-facts if you’re not careful) but not in the beautifully crafted and intelligently presented way that most children’s non-fiction books are. Sure, you can get information from both, and many websites do this very well, but with this series I want to tell stories about real things, from music to science, evolution to language. Most non-fiction books for children are not the kinds of book you would necessarily want to read from cover to cover as they are dip-in-and-out books. I read a great deal of non-fiction as a child  - much more than fiction – but I would read them in a non-linear way, perhaps looking up something specific, or randomly reading around the book. Plus a website can’t do what a book can – encourage you (like I did as a child) to keep returning to it, even reading aspects of the book you wouldn’t have done if it was online. Plus, it’s physically there with you in the room, so you are more likely to go back to it. Arguably, books allow you to mull over and to process information in a way that you wouldn’t with a website. Also, you will probably spend more time with a book, you will navigate your own way through it  – thus you most likely engage in a deeper and more profound way. Well, that’s how it feels to me. 

James Carter performing at the 2017 CLiPPA Poetry Awards          Photograph copyright Ellie Kurttz 

You’re a poet, performer and workshop leader who often performs live in schools. Do you perform your nonfiction books? What’s the difference between performing a poem and sharing these books? 

It’s a very different experience performing a poem than it is reading from a picture bookWhen I perform a poem I often know the words backwards, and often do actions or have set ways of delivering certain lines for effect. 

When I read Once Upon A Star or The Big Beyond, I’m physically holding a book – and the audience needs to spend time enjoying each spread in turn – so that changes things. But as with my poems, I make sure I pretty much know the words off by heart, so I’m not having to keep looking at the text, which means that I can hold the book towards the audience. And as I would with any poem, I often add call-and-response sections or get the children to repeat key lines. I like it to be as interactive as possible.  It’s too passive for me having children just sat there. I want them to be directly involved. So once I have read Once Upon A Star or The Big Beyond, for example, I ask volunteers to act out a fun and zany dramatization of the birth of the moon - and I also do lots of audience-participation space-themed music with my melodica to keep them involved too!

Illustration by Nomoco for Once Upon a Raindrop         copyright Nomoco for Caterpillar Books

What would you do with Once Upon a Raindrop if you were a teacher? How would you use it to inspire children’s reading and learning?

I’d spend my entire book budget on buying copies of each book in this series for every single child in the school. I wish! But seriously, these are books to be read out loud, so I would encourage teachers to do that.  And Raindrop would be ideal to introduce the topic of water – not just as a read-aloud information book, but as a diving board (ho ho!) for discussion points

  • • How often do you use water every day, and what for?
  • • Where does water naturally occur – and in what forms?
  • • Is there water in space?
  • • In what ways is water vital to human life? 

Nomoco’s illustrations would also be ideal for children to emulate or use as the basis for their own artwork or posters. The spread with the giant wave could be compared with The Great Wave by Hokusai. Also, I might encourage classes to write their own poems about water – say a water kenning (shape-shifter / ship-lifter / rain-maker / life-saver ) or a cinquain or a haiku or a river/water-cycle shape poem – or even a don’t-waste-water rap!

What do you want children and their families to get from sharing your non-fiction books?

I like the idea with this series that I am giving the reader an immersive, enjoyable but informative linear journey or narrative through a topic. I’m no expert, just profoundly curious. Inadvertently, I would love a little bit of that to rub off onto those young readers.

Many contemporary children’s non-fiction books look great – with sumptuous graphics and illustrations, but so many pages are really fact-heavy and can at times be written in quite an adult discourse. I like facts, I love facts, but I don’t want them on every page in my books. I want young readers to see how something came about, and where and when and why it evolved.  

It’s important to me as a writer to encourage children themselves to get involved with a subject area, so that there is a point to the book, and it’s not simply about the consumption of information. At the end of The Big Beyond I say  “Rockets, rockets every year will head out through the atmosphere.  We’ll need an astronaut (or two) … so what do you think? Could it be you?” I love the thought that maybe one day a child reading or hearing that book will head out into space!

And these books are NOT the be-all-and-end-all on each topic I write about, just an overview, a gentle insight or introduction. I don’t want to cram everything in, I want a reader to go ‘Ooh that’s interesting - I want to find out more about that’. That’s the exact reaction each book would ideally have!

That’s fantastic, James  - thank you so much for talking to Cast of Thousands and the best of luck with the series and your other work!


James Carter’s non-fiction picturebook series for Caterpillar Books includes Once Upon a Star, Once Upon a Raindrop and The Big Beyond. Once Upon a Rhythm will be published in August 2019, with other titles to follow.

His poetry books include The World’s Greatest Space Cadet and Spaced Out. Zim Zam Zoom! was shortlisted for the UK’s Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award (CLiPPA) 2017. To find out more about CLiPPA click here

Visit James Carter’s website at jamescarterpoet.co.uk for more information, including tips on writing poetry with kids and running successful events and festivals.

If you would like to support our work by buying books featured on this website, please visit the Cast of Thousands bookshop at uk.bookshop.org

You'll find Once Upon a Raindrop on our Extra-special nonfiction: WATER booklist, to view it click HERE

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