Story behind the story

Lucky Duck: Local writer has found success with her children’s books

St. Paul Pioneer Press, March 15, 2001

In the winter of 1986, an idea was hatched on Lake Como when St. Paul writer Lisa Westberg Peters saw a  mallard alone on the ice. Peters filed away her impression of the unlucky duck among her collection of story ideas.

Ten years later, Peters pulled out her file and chose to write a short book inspired by the mallard. “Cold Little Duck, Duck, Duck” is a chil­dren’s picture book about a duck who flies home too early, only to find that her pond is frozen. The heroine is encouraged by a bear to go “back, back, back.” Instead, she thinks of spring and soon finds herself in warmer weather.

Peters’ story was recently named a 2001 Notable Book by the American Library Association — a designation given to about 20 titles for young readers each year. It has just been adapted for British readers and will soon appear in other languages as well.

Though the book is as thick as a pencil and only 206 words, it took two years to complete. But Peters says she wouldn’t have done it any differently.

“I don’t think I’d trust a story on the first shot,” says Peters of the 20 drafts that she made before reaching·a final product.

Peters’ editor at Green­willow Books is pleased with the results. “Some people write a book in an afternoon, and it could take a person 10 years to write another book. There’s no formula,” says Virginia Duncan. “I think that every single word has to be perfect.”

To achieve that perfection, illustrator Sam Williams worked with Greenwillow Press as the story evolved. Williams’ inspiration for the look of the protagonist came from the inhabitants of a pond near his home in St. Albans, a small city 20 miles north of Lon­don, England. Though Williams and Peters never communicated directly with each other, Peters was pleased with the illustra­tions.

At first, the story of the little duck had a more morbid premise. The little duck was to lay a frozen egg with a frozen duckling inside. Peters abandoned that premise a year later because it had no immediate tension.

Though Peters has published 12 books, including “Cold Little Duck, Duck, Duck,” most of her·story ideas remain unpublished. Beneath rows of bookshelves lay about 6 feet worth of manuscripts and ideas that have never made it to press because they were rejected by publishers or because they have yet to be developed.

Drawing from her curiosity about the world around her, Peters carries a notebook to record observations about everything from the bunnies that eat her garden to the carbon cycle — both ideas are topics of stories that she is working on.

Many of her 12 published children’s books were based on scientific topics — especially with geographic themes. “The Sun, the Wind and the Rain,” published in 1988, received recognition as an “Outstanding Science Trade Book” from the National Science Teachers Association.

Peters started writing children’s books 17 years ago, when she stopped taking naps with her. daughters, Anna and Emily, who were then 1 and 3. Peters, whose hus­band works at the Pioneer Press, thought that the themes of her children’s books would grow up with her daughters. She was surprised to find that they didn’t. “Cold Little Duck, Duck, Duck” is for ages four and older, and Peters’ daughters are now attending college.

In her latest book, Peters says that it is up to the reader to decide whether spring arrived because of the duck’s powerful thoughts or because of nature’s design. Of course, she has her own ideas about it. To her, the duck’s wishes brought on spring.

–Monica LaBelle

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