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Mallards Drake and Ida await the hatching of their new brood, but the clutch does seem to contain one inordinately large egg. The egg hatches into a huge, gangly freak of a duck, whose quack is more of a "Honk!". Ugly, as the newcomer is quickly named, is ostracised by all except Ida his mother, and the farmyard Cat, who invites Ugly to "dinner", with comical results. Alone and outcast, Ugly flees the farmyard. Ida sets off in pursuit.

" …in Drewe we have a lyricist/book-writer of rare wit and ingenuity, and in Stiles a composer of great range, as capable of music-hall pastiche and jaunty numbers as he is of yearning anthems and touching love songs."
[Daily Telegraph]

Now lost, Ugly meets a flock of Geese under the control of Greylag, a goose of mediocre military aspirations. The geese help Ugly to escape the pursuing Cat. Ugly takes refuge in a cosy cottage, home to Lowbutt and Queenie (a domesticated hen and her feline companion). The Cat shows up and takes a reciprocated fancy to Queenie. Ugly escapes amid the confusion. An encounter with a cheerful Bullfrog teaches him that he must accept himself, "warts and all".

"Sam Essen ... wrung every last gasp of sympathy and empathy from his portrayal of the duckling that goes 'Honk!' instead of 'Quack!' "
[Rachel O'Connor, Wharfedale & Airedale Observer]

With winter approaching, Ugly is further from home than ever. Ida and the Cat are still in pursuit. Finally, Ugly meets a beautiful young swan named Penny and falls in love. She invites him to migrate, but, still desperate to find Ida, he declines. He survives the winter and, in spring, the returning swans guide Ida to her son. The Cat, by this time an attractive ice-statue, has probably learned his lesson. Ugly, now a stunningly beautiful swan, is finally admired and loved by everyone.

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