Although they had long since mastered such basic skills, 20 second graders at a Northwest elementary school recently sat around a table cutting and pasting colored construction paper.

That assignment, however, was merely detail to a major task. The pupils were actually demonstrating the process they undertook to write, illustrate and publish their first book, "A Caterpillar's Wish," which will hit bookstores in February.

"I have experience with how to publish books," 7-year-old Airis McCottry said enthusiastically. "First you write the book, then you take it to the publisher, then they take it to the bookstores." One of her classmates disagreed. "First you think about it," said Peter Gerlach-Mack. "You have to think about what you're going to write before you start."

The book, written by students at Shepherd Elementary School in Shepherd Park, was the winner of the 1987 Young Author's Award sponsored by School Book Fairs Inc., a fund-raising organization. The book will be published by Willowisp Press, based in Worthington, Ohio.

"A Caterpillar's Wish" is the third book published by Willowisp Press as part of its writing contests. Proceeds from the sale of the book will go to a fund for School Book Fairs to sponsor more writing contests. The school will receive $500, a plaque and five copies of the book.

"Students who develop a love for books -- for reading -- usually become achievers in life," said Leni Koloski, public relations specialist for School Book Fairs, which sponsors contests each year to encourage reading and writing among elementary school children.

Shepherd teacher and librarian Janice Spencer said: "They're very happy with themselves and very proud of themselves. It's helped their self-confidence out a lot."

In February, the then-first graders at Shepherd, under the instruction of Spencer and art teacher Janice Morrison, got together to brainstorm for a story idea. Spencer said she and Morrison selected students from three first-grade classes.

The pupils decided to develop a story about a caterpillar and a ladybug who become good friends, then come close to losing their friendship when the caterpillar seemingly disappears as he evolves into a butterfly.

Once the students decided on the characters, they had to study the life cycle and habits of each insect to develop the story line, according to Spencer. They had to learn where the insects live, what they eat, and other details about the insect kingdom.

Because all the pupils contributed to the art work, the two characters of the story appear slightly different throughout the 24-page book. In one scene, Janet Ladybug may have four spots, in another scene, two, and in another, six. "We tried to use as many of their pictures as we could," Spencer said.

The figures the pupils were working on will be used for a puppet show in February to demonstrate to their fellow pupils how they developed the book.

The national Young Author writing contest grew out of a series of writing contests that School Book Fairs has sponsored in cities throughout the country for three years. In this first national contest, more than 120 entries from elementary schools were submitted.

The entries were evaluated by a panel of judges for originality, quality of artwork, and the story line, according to Kiloski. "A Caterpillar's Wish" was chosen from 35 semifinalists.

In addition to Airis and Peter, the book's author's are: Habsita Abdoum, Miles Bumbray, Chanta Cobb, Toniah Colson, Tiffani Fleming, Rolanda Graves, Larry Hackett, Jeffrey Haskins, Kelly Hatcher, Tanya Hollingsworth, Vaughn Kimbrough, Candice McCoy, Katrina McDow, Malachi McKinney, Crystal Nelson, Temiloro Oyewole, Stephen Rickman and Alan Sharlow.