“In this charming, tightly plotted debut, Alina’s witty, vulnerable narratorial voice guides readers through her intensely authentic personal evolution.”
Fitting in at a new school is hard enough, but when you’re an awkward, big-nosed, nerdy Pakistani girl with a funny last name, it can seem impossible.
In The Unlovable Alina But, eleven-year-old Alina Butt has changed schools four times already since her family moved to England from Pakistan. Even after all that practice, she doesn’t seem to be getting any better at being the new kid. Alina must rely on her stubborn will and wacky sense of humor to survive the endlessly embarrassing and ridiculous situations she finds herself in and discover her own unique way to shine!
In this article, author Ambreen Butt-Hussain answers some questions about her debut novel The Unlovable Alina Butt.
1. The Unlovable Alina Butt is your first book, what inspired you to write this story?
Quite a few things actually! I always knew I wanted to share my own childhood experience and the journey of embracing being “different” through a story. This desire only became stronger once I started working as a teacher. I wanted my students to feel seen and find comfort in this book. I also wanted to be able to provide them with a positive form of representation. As a minority, when you constantly find yourself being portrayed in a negative light in various forms of media, it is easy to feel “unlovable.” So it was very important for me to broaden representation for South Asians, Muslims and immigrants, to help my readers see themselves as “lovable.” These reasons had been brewing in my mind for a while but what finally pushed me to begin writing was going through a very difficult personal time. I began to write as an outlet, and what it did for me was magic! It brought positivity and so much hope back into my life, ultimately resulting in this wonderful book.
2. Tell us more about Alina, how would you describe her?
When I think of Alina, I think of the word “middle.” Not just because she is the middle child, but because she lies “in the middle” for most things. She is shy, but when you get to know her she is this hilarious, fun person. She is smart, but also so strange and silly. She is very kind and caring, but sometimes needs the help of her family and friends to figure out the right thing to do. She can’t really be boxed into just one category or “type”—she is changing, growing and discovering herself. Alina is a very relatable and lovable character…even though she does not realize it.
3. This story is set in the year 2001. Why did you want to set the story during that time as opposed to present day?
I went back and forth about this decision quite a bit. Ultimately, I chose to set it in the year 2001, because I wanted the story to be a close reflection of my own experience. As well as this, I noticed that the students I was teaching at the time had such a strong interest in the 90s and 2000s—the fashion, the trends, the simplicity of those times, specifically life without social media. When I asked them, “Which year would you want to live in—past or present?”, surprisingly, most of them answered the 2000s. So I thought why not try to make their wish come true and transport them to that era through my book!
4. Apart from being a writer, you are also an elementary school teacher. How did that inform your writing of the story?
As a writer, I absorb and take inspiration from everything around me. Being a teacher and observing my students led me to see that many of their experiences and feelings are universal and timeless. This helped me form not only my story but also develop my characters. I loved using my students’ energy and interactions as inspiration when adding little details into the book! I think it helped me make my story and characters more relatable and real.
5. In the book, Alina tries out for the school play of Cinderella. Did you ever participate in a school play like Alina? If you could play any role you wanted in Cinderella, which one would it be?
I did! My school actually did a play for Cinderella when I was in grade 6, where I played, *drum roll*…a townsperson! I was a very shy and quiet kid, and just like Alina would have loved to play the role of Cinderella, but unfortunately did not have the confidence to put myself out there and audition. A few years later, my school did a play for Snow White, where I finally worked up the courage to audition and ended up playing the part of one of the dwarves (which was in fact a comical role). So I definitely moved up the ranks…both in terms of my roles and my self confidence.
6. Just like our extremely loveable main character, Alina, you also have a lot of experience being the “awkward new kid”. How much of Alina’s story is similar to your experiences?
Alina’s story is very close to my heart, because it is closely inspired by my own childhood experiences. A lot of the characters (especially the family members) as well as the small details in the story are very similar to my past, for example, the location and some of the problems which Alina and her family face. But there is definitely fictionalization and exaggeration to make the plot more interesting for the reader. Just like Alina, I found the transition, making new friends and dealing with bullies very difficult. But the main difference is, I didn’t feel as uneasy or embarrassed about my personality, looks or family as Alina does. Alina’s struggles are a more heightened version of my own feelings as a kid.
7. What do you hope readers take away from the book?
I hope Alina’s journey can help my readers feel that they are not alone. Many of us go through moments where we find it hard to love ourselves. I hope Alina’s story helps my readers realize that everything that makes them feel different is what makes them who they are and it is important to cherish that. Not just their strengths, but also things they think are their weaknesses—their flaws, their little quirks. I hope this story inspires my readers to treat themselves with more kindness.
As well as this, I hope this story urges them to see others in their full light, and accept them for their flaws and differences as well. Alina learns to see the people in her life positively, allowing them to help her in her journey. I tried to make each character unique and hopefully have readers realize that even when they seem perfect, they are not. It is important to get to know people for their true selves and remember that each person has their own story and is fighting their own battles.
8. What was the most rewarding and/or challenging thing about writing this book?
One of the most rewarding things about writing this book was to be able to make my mom and dad proud! In a way, this story is like a thank you letter to them for all that they did for me growing up.
As for the most challenging part, I think it was probably the rounds and rounds of edits. I always tell my students how crucial editing their work is, but I think I truly understood the importance of it once I read my book for the hundredth time and still found things to improve or change! I did not expect for the editing process to be as long as it was. But overall, thanks to all the help I got from my wonderful editor, it made for a much better story.
9. Is there more in store for Alina? Are you currently working on a new story?
Yes! I am currently working on the second part to Alina’s story. It is a continuation of her and the Butt family’s journey—with lots more hilarious situations, adventures, some new characters and relationships, and a huuuge problem Alina finds herself in yet again. I can’t wait to add the final touches and have it join the world of Alina!
AMBREEN BUTT-HUSSAIN was born in Pakistan but lived in England and Scotland before finally settling in Canada. She has a Bachelor of Science from the University of Toronto and a Master of Education from Queen’s University. She has years of experience as an elementary school teacher, some experience as a writer and a lifetime of experience being the awkward new kid trying to fit in. She lives in Milton, Ontario.
Photo by Hadia T.H.—White Cactus Studios