Kaspar Prince of Cats, By Michael Morpurgo, Illustrated by Michael Foreman

The bell-boy and his nautical puss: a Titanic tale of ocean adventure
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The Independent Culture

Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman occupy something of a unique position in children's publishing. With Morpurgo as the words and Foreman as the pictures, they have collaborated on more than 20 titles since 1994, drawing from subjects as varied as King Arthur, gentle giants and a coma victim. It isn't just Morpurgo's mastery of story-telling and Foreman's knack with elegant detail that children lap up: it's the way they click together like a toy.

Kaspar Prince of Cats opens in 1912 at the Savoy Hotel, when orphaned bell-boy Johnny Trott unexpectedly finds himself the guardian of Kaspar Kandinsky, "the most beautiful cat in all of Russia". Kaspar makes friends with one of the guests, Lizziebeth, only child of wealthy New York parents, who starts off being a "hoity-toity" know-it-all, but turns out to be a thoroughly good egg. The three friends battle the kind of class (and species) prejudice you'd expect in an age when everyone knew their place, but this is nothing compared with what they encounter when they sail on the "biggest, fastest ship in the whole world": the Titanic.

This 200-page novel looks like a plush picture book. Each chapter opens with a double-page spread, and Foreman overcomes this challenge by cramming his pictures with historical detail: Savoy Hotel signage, parasols, the rustle of toque hats decorated with feathers. The lifeboats and sailors' uniforms are taken from A Night to Remember, the black-and-white film from the 1950s, and the prose echoes that film's very British restraint rather than the emotional hyperbole of the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster, Titanic .

Unlike the doomed liner, the action never flounders. Perhaps because he used to tell stories to fidgety children as a teacher, Morpurgo never slows the narrative with descriptions of place or atmosphere. Which, of course, is where Foreman steps in.

Blending research and invention, Morpurgo has created a beguiling story inspired by his residency at the Savoy hotel, and both Michaels offer readers a trip as long and eventful as that of their hero, Johnny Trott.