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Friday, June 8, 2012

Kaspar, Prince of Cats, written by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Michael Foreman. Harper, 2008. ages 8 and up

"Remember, Lizziebeth, you've got to keep schtum," I told her one evening, tapping my nose conspiratorially. She liked that. So whenever she left my room after that, she'd tap her nose. "Schtum," she'd whisper. "I've got to keep schtum."

It took a long while for me to sit down and read this marvelous book, despite the encouragement of my good friend Don who devours all things 'Morpurgo'. It is my loss that I did not know the Titanic tale earlier. But, it is fitting that I read it at the same time that I am reading Deborah Hopkinson's Titanic, (Scholastic, 2012).

Johnny Trott is an young orphan working as a bell boy at the Savoy Hotel in London when we meet him. He does his best to keep the patrons of the hotel happy and content with his service. It appears to be providence when he meets Countess Kadinsky and her much-loved cat, Prince Kaspar. The two are inseparable and she dotes on the feline and is consumed with his care. When she sees that Johnny and Kaspar have a mutual admiration society she pays Johnny to help with that care.

An untimely accident takes her life and Kaspar is left in Johnny's hands. It is most difficult for him to hide the fact from the surly housekeeper who harbors no such visitors in staff quarters. Johnny is threatened within an inch of his life, or at least in his job, should he caught with the cat in his room. To his rescue comes Lizziebeth Stanton, the young daughter of one of hotel's most respected guests. She also loves Kaspar. It is through their mutual love of Kaspar and their growing friendship that Johnny stows away on the Titanic and thus, is on the ship when it sinks.

As is his great talent, Michael Morpurgo fashions an intriguing and powerful story that offers his young audience just enough information about the Titanic's passengers, crew and voyage that it will keep them moving forward with the story and easily understand the events of the disaster.  He makes it clear that there were two classes of people aboard the ship, and there was a certain sense of separation between the two. But, it is the characters that keep the story moving along, and it is to them the reader owes enormous loyalty.

Kaspar is a wonder, and will be much loved by all readers. He has a certain sense of his station in life while also succumbing to the unequivocal sadness of losing his mistress, finding himself in less than opulent surroundings following her death and finally, finding comfort with a young girl and her family, only to be joined by Johnny making their family circle complete. It is most satisfying.

There was never a moment when I wanted to put the book down, and I read it through at one sitting. Michael Foreman's wondrous watercolor illustrations added a perfect setting, appealing characters and a dashing title character. I felt that I was living in the story and eager to move forward with each new twist and turn. There is a lot for the young readers to deal with in the tale...death, poverty, bullying behavior, and loss of family. In Michael Morpurgo's deft hand the story plays out with thougthful concern for the many issues faced by his characters.

Full of adventure, engaging characters and a well-constructed family story, it would make a great summer read for the family vacation or for bedtime. There are so many wonderful moments, and you will never be sorry you shared them with those you love.

My 'keeper' shelf is getting crowded!

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