Donna Jo Napoli’s 2006 novel North tells the story of Alvin, a 12-year-old African-American of diminutive stature whose size has made him the target of taunts from other children, who refer to him as “dwarf.” Alvin lives with his mother and grandmother in a dangerous neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where drugs are common and drug dealers always on the lookout for runners and customers. Alvin’s overprotective mother asks a neighbor to escort young Alvin to and from school for his protection, but Alvin’s growing resentment against the protective cocoon inside which his mother attempts to keep him begins to wear thin. He is “dying under Mama’s protection. Sometimes he felt already dead,” and he will “die” if he doesn’t escape his suffocating life.
A school assignment intended to honor “African-American History Month” that requires the students to study an African-American hero leads Alvin to make the bold decision to not only report on his idol, the real-life African-American Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, but to emulate Henson’s travels to the icy North Pole. Alvin is desperate to, as described by Napoli, “find out how much he could do, how far he could go.” Further emboldened by the disbelieving taunts of Alvin runs away from home and begins his trek to the Arctic, encountering challenges and inspirations along the way. Chief among the latter is Alvin’s encounter with Inuit Native Americans who take him under their collective wing and help him adapt to his new and very different surroundings. Most importantly, they help Alvin reach Bylot Island in the Arctic Circle, where he learns the ways of the Inuit and the skills he will need to survive the harsh conditions. Unlike the community from which he has come, Alvin finds in the Inuit a people willing to help him rather than impose further obstacles.
Having helped Alvin reach the Arctic region, the young boy is befriended by Idlouk, who also takes him under his wing and imparts wisdom and knowledge that Alvin would never have attained back home. North tells the story of the physical and mental challenges Alvin faces during his journey, and the physical and spiritual growth he experiences along the way. After saving Idlouk’s life, Alvin’s friend informs him that he, Alvin, has attained new state of being: Alvin is “free.” He has learned to survive in the harshest conditions and proven himself courageous and loyal.