Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alyssa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Alyssa Milano: I am so excited to be with you. I totally agree. We don’t have time to read books.

Zibby: Right? It’s impossible.

Alyssa: It really is. It makes me super sad because I love to read. Then again, something to look forward to once the kids are big and grown.

Zibby: Exactly. That’s why I do this podcast, so we can get glimpses of different books and hear more about it. Then people will be so convinced that they have to run out and buy the book and find time.

Alyssa: I love it.

Zibby: Thanks. Speaking of books, your middle-grade novel about Hope running for president is so timely given the upcoming election and everything else. Your series is fantastic. Tell me about starting the series in general and then this particular book in it.

Alyssa: It’s actually a pretty amazing story. I became friends with our illustrator first. His name is Eric Keyes. He’s a brilliant illustrator. He’s also the character designer for The Simpsons. I DMed him once because I was starting my Patriot Not Partisan website, which is a website filled with all essays from both sides of the political spectrum. I asked if he had any political art that he wanted to share. He had this character that he designed that was this little girl, she was more like toddler age, marching with a bullhorn and doing really incredible things. I said, “Oh, my god, who is that? What are you doing with her?” He said, “Nothing, really. You can do whatever.” I said, “Can we try to sell a children’s book using her?” He said, “Yes, let’s do that.” I created this whole character. He’s like, “What would her name be?” I said, “Hope. Obviously, her name is Hope,” and had this whole story idea in my head. We were able to sell the idea to Scholastic as a series. The one that just came out is book three of four. I just love this character so, so much. She was originally a toddler. I was like, “Are we going to do a picture book?”

I left it up to Scholastic to give me some kind of direction because there is no one better in the children’s book genre and world as far as publishing. They said something which I found was really interesting which was that middle school is such a rough time and rough transition for kids. It’s really this untapped market because not a lot of people are writing books specifically for that age range when there are such specific issues that that age range goes through. I thought it was a perfect idea to age her up a little bit because when you look at — I have two kids. I have a nine-year-old and a six-year-old, a boy and a girl. The thing that’s been so interesting in raising them is that they innately have this sense of empathy and compassion and wanting to help and wanting to do good. I was just always so curious about, when does that go away? Obviously, the teenage years, it becomes a lot more self-consumed. I think it goes away around middle school because their entire life changes. It is such a rough time for kids. They’re usually in a new school. They have to make new friends. They’re going through puberty. Their bodies are changing. They’re becoming more self-conscious and self-aware. The thought was, how can I create this character that combines all the things that children go through in middle school personally but still cultivates what they naturally have inside of them as far as wanting to be helpful and to do good and to change the world?

That’s how Hope was born. I found this amazing cowriter, her name is Debbie Rigaud, who’s just been awesome and fearless and such an incredible partner to have. The way I describe her is she wants to change the world, but she has to go through middle school first. The first book was all about Hope finding her voice and using it. That can sometimes be super uncomfortable but a necessity. Then the second book, Hope: Project Animal Shelter, is about Hope becoming a community organizer in raising money to keep her local animal shelter open. It’s really cute. The illustrations are amazing. This one’s called Hope: Project Class President. Basically, we wanted to give kids a real sense of a civic class, almost, embedded in this fun story of Hope running for class president. Kids will learn terminology like town halls and debates and canvasing and things that we are hearing a lot about now when you turn on the news with the election coming up. It’s been a really rewarding experience, one that I am super proud of. Just to have something that I’m able to give my kids and say, “This is for you and your friends,” has been really, really great.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I have to say, not all young kids are empathic.

Alyssa: They aren’t?

Zibby: I don’t think they all — I’ve met some…

Alyssa: Really?

Zibby: Yeah.

Alyssa: I don’t know. My kids just came out very concerned and empathetic. When I think about what happens when one baby cries and then another baby cries, to me, that’s empathy. That’s feeling a shift in the environment that causes some kind of emotion. I think all kids sort of have that a little bit.

Zibby: Maybe I was just thinking of some of the meaner kids who we’ve crossed paths with.

Alyssa: I think those are the kids that never had their compassion nurtured at all and is probably lacking that in other areas of their lives, not just in taking care of other people, but how people treat them.

Zibby: I totally agree. You’re absolutely right. I have four kids. My oldest kids are twins. They’re thirteen. We are in the middle school years as we speak. I’m only a couple years ahead of you. I have to say that, at least in my case, I feel like the empathy doesn’t totally go away. Nothing happens overnight, but it is so essential at this time to get books like yours and show leadership and kindness and how you can help and just get out of your own bubble of worries into the world, which, frankly, a lot of adults could use as well.

Alyssa: Yes. Isn’t that the truth? Yes, for sure. I really wanted to nurture the beauty that I saw in my kids. It’s so amazing that they always know how to reduce something that seems so complex to its most basic emotional place. That goes for political issues too. The way in which their minds think about the issues has nothing to do partisanship politics. It has to do with humanity and being a good person. I think that it’s very interesting to watch them process what’s happening right now. I think for a lot of parents it’s very interesting to try to figure out how much to tell their children about what’s happening and in what way to say it. It’s very hard.

Zibby: It is a very loaded time to be a parent.

Alyssa: It really is. Then you have the pandemic. It’s hard enough being a parent and knowing that you’re making the right decisions with your kids. Then you add the pandemic part on top of it. It’s like, I don’t know, is this going to affect them for the rest of their lives? Are they going to want to wash down packages forever? Are they going to grow to be neurotic or more neurotic or have worse anxiety than they would’ve normally had? There’s just so much to it. Is it bad that I’m keeping them home from school and homeschooling them even though there are kids in their class? Is it worse if they get sick? It just feels really big. It all felt big before.

Zibby: That is the similar reel I have playing in my head. The only thing I have turned to, and you’re probably the same way, is you just have to listen deep down, what you feel is right. This isn’t about, should my kid be on travel soccer? Things that seemed like big deals before, now it’s like, all right, this is what my comfort level is, and I just have to go with it because I’ve got nothing else to go on.

Alyssa: Right. I did not have the easiest childhood being a working child at the age of seven. I always fall back on, I was okay, and the only reason why I’m okay now is because I have parents who loved me. It was so important for them to make me feel safe and loved. I feel like that’s the biggest part of this. As long as we can continue to allow our children to feel safe and loved, they’re going to be okay no matter what.

Zibby: Now that you have kids of your own, do you look back on that period of time any differently than when you were going through it? Do you think, how was I able to do it? How could I pull it off? Any regrets?

Alyssa: My son is nine. In one year from my son’s age now was the age when I shot the Who’s the Boss? pilot. I look at him and I’m like, what in the world? How did I ever — it is really crazy that we expect kids to be able to perform for — I was on that show for eight years. It was such a big part of my life, but it was hard. It was hard. I was working and going to school and trying to be a good daughter and friend and sibling. It was definitely a thing. My point is just that I think children are incredibly resilient as long as they feel loved and safe.

Zibby: Very true. I love how you even give role models in the current Hope book of how leadership can change institutions. Even something as simple as changing the entrance of a building and making people feel special with a VIP sixth-grade walkway and all these little things that she did, and even helping her friend and saying, “You know what, you be my campaign manager,” and just all these she does to bring everybody together, it’s great to see a girl doing that, honestly. It’s just nice to have such a great role model in a middle-grade book. That’s all.

Alyssa: Often, we teach our young girls about leadership through historic women or celebrity women. To be able to create a character who was a peer of young children who could show leadership qualities and not be those terms that we seem to use when girls show leadership qualities like bossy or snobby or self-centered, but to really give her this warm, beautiful strength and to lead from a place of service, which is the thing that I think women do incredibly well — we lead from a very different place. I feel like men lead, often, from a place of wanting something like power or notoriety or fame or money. I think as women, when we’re at our best and our strongest, we’re leading from a place of service. What does that look like in middle school? Creating an entrance specially for the sixth graders. It’s been really rewarding working on that project.

Zibby: Did you ever think you were going to write books for kids? Has that been a goal of yours, or it just happened this way?

Alyssa: Once I had my own kids and I saw what was out there — there are some beautiful children’s books, but there’s also some really silly children’s books. For me, wanting to contribute to that place was important, especially since I had — when you have kids, all of a sudden you’re like, I’ll do an animated movie and play a squishy or whatever, because you just want your kids to like what you’re doing. I’m really happy. Just the fact that I get to dedicate books to my children and my nieces and nephews is pretty cool.

Zibby: Tell me just a little about how all of your activism plays into this. You’re doing so many different things. You’re saving the world here from Time’s Up to UNICEF to directing and acting and writing and your kids. I know we’re all busy, but I think that seems like a particularly heavy load to bear.

Alyssa: I realized that this idea of women having it all is kind of something that we are made to feel like we need to do. Once I put the pressure off of me, that’s when everything fell into place. I realized that there is no such thing as balance. It does not exist. The most important thing we can do as moms and women is do the things we love, the things that make us feel fulfilled, and be really present and in the moment when we do those things. When I’m with my children, I am concentrated on being the best mother I could possibly be. When I’m writing whatever, I’m concentrated in that moment in writing. When I’m being interviewed, I concentrate on that moment. I found that that is the best way to manage the chaos of it all. It’s a lot of chaos. It really is. I think every mom feels it at some point where they just feel overwhelmed. It’s six PM, they’re like, I’m going to go lay down by myself. We just need that decompression. I don’t believe in balance. I don’t think it exists. I think you just have to manage your time well and in a way where you are in the moment in every moment.

Zibby: That’s great advice. I’m envying the moms who can take a nap at six o’clock. That’s not happening in my house.

Alyssa: That wouldn’t be a nap. That would be going to sleep at six o’clock.

Zibby: Oh, going to bed for the night. Okay, yes.

Alyssa: For the entire night. You’re dealing with dinner, honey. I’m going to go do whatever I have to do, whether that means be on the treadmill and take a hot shower and get into bed early, whatever that means. I really try. I think it’s so important that we all try to have those moments.

Zibby: I just started this new Instagram community and a second podcast called “Moms Don’t Have Time to Lose Weight” because I felt like so many people, especially with the pandemic, have just felt like things have gotten a little out of control.

Alyssa: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: I feel like I hear all day now just how hard it is to even get in a walk or a workout or whatever just to stay —

Alyssa: — I bought one of those little recumbent bikes that I can put under my desk. When I have five minutes, I’ll just do that or kick the soccer ball around with the kids or jump in the trampoline, something that at least gets my heart rate up. I try once a day, but it’s hard.

Zibby: It is hard. The trampoline is a hidden gem. That’s the best.

Alyssa: I don’t know what it is about the pandemic. I was sick. I had COVID in March and April. I have a lot of the long-hauler symptoms, just tired all the time. Even my friends that haven’t had or didn’t have COVID are just tired all the time. I think that’s there something about — it’s almost like our bodies just go into protection/hibernation mode.

Zibby: Yes. When an entire planet is fearing for their lives, something happens.

Alyssa: Like a collective worry or a collective pain.

Zibby: I’m sorry about your experience. I know I read about that. Are you okay now?

Alyssa: I still have symptoms. I’ll be totally fine some days. I don’t have an autoimmune thing that I can compare this to, but it feels like — you know how people who have Lupus or MS, they’ll talk about flare-ups? They’ll be okay some days. Then they’ll have flare-ups. That’s what this is like. I’m totally fine, feel strong, have energy on some days. Then other days, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, joint aches and pains. I don’t know one person who has recovered from this that has been totally fine. I have one friend who felt good. Then they found a blood clot in his leg. It seems like nobody just gets the acute sickness and then is out of this. The doctors don’t know. I got this new symptom a little while ago, not burning palms, but kind of a bubbly under my skin feeling. I called my doctor. I was like, “This can’t still be new –” He said, “Yeah, that’s probably your small blood vessels leaking.” I’m like, “Does that go away?” He said, “Well, we’ll see.” We’ll see? That’s it? That’s all I get?

Zibby: My mother-in-law was very, very ill with COVID and ended up passing away. For six weeks we were —

Alyssa: — I’m so sorry.

Zibby: I know. It was awful. I was on the phone with doctors all the time. We would say things like, “What comes next? What do you think?” When the doctors are even like, “We’re not sure,” what else can you do? We don’t know. My whole life, you’re brought up that the doctors know most of the answers. There are some things that are incurable, but for the most part, they’ve got it under control.

Alyssa: Or that there’s at least some article somewhere that they could go back and refer to that will tell you how to deal with respiratory viral infection. This was so, so new and so raw. I’m so sorry that you were affected that closely. That is brutal.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m sorry you were, and so many other people. It’s insane. It’s everywhere you turn. Anyway, on to happier things. Back to Hope, are you expanding the series? Do you have other big projects in the works? Are you doing more TV/movie stuff? What’s on the next six months for you?

Alyssa: The election is first and foremost. We just announced a Who’s the Boss? sequel.

Zibby: Oh, that’s right. Yes, I saw that.

Alyssa: Which I’ll be doing with Tony, which will be really, really, really fun and exciting. We don’t know anything about it yet except that he’s probably going to come visit Sam for a weekend and never leave. Then the chaos will ensue of him taking care of my kids. Then the holidays will come up. Then I’m not sure, really. I’m in the process of writing a book of essays right now. I’m super excited about that. I’m hoping to take a little bit of a vacation and just rest for a little bit. My idea of resting is just not doing things back to back to back every day, but have a half a day where I get to paint or do something that I’m not trying to crank out. That’s it. We’re all just playing it by ear right now. There’s people on sets. They’re all masked up and with shields and these little dressing room pods. Not only does it not look fun to go back to work on a set right now, but also, it looks like it would totally make me anxious because there’s a constant reminder that this thing is in the air just by the way in which you have to function for twelve hours a day. Being home, we could sort of isolate ourselves. We’re so adaptable that we can, I feel like, at least shut off what’s happening on the outside a little bit. If you’re on a set for twelve hours and seeing how everybody has to sanitize and put on protective gear, I think that would really mess with my anxiety.

Zibby: Yeah, in your face.

Alyssa: There’s no avoiding that.

Zibby: I feel like even just to go to a doctor’s office — I had to go to some building today. I’m in New York City. First, we walked in. Then I had to go to a computer. Then I had to get my temperature screened. Then we had to wash our hands. I kind of wasn’t emotionally prepared for that. It’s everything, everyday life. It’s just a bit crazy. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors or just aspiring creative people? You’re an artist in a lot of different ways from acting — what advice would you have?

Alyssa: I think to nurture your creativity is important not only to keep it alive, but also to spark other ways in which you can be creative. It feeds off each other, I feel like. I just started, during the quarantine, doing watercolor painting. It’s amazing how just sitting down for twenty minutes in the evening and really being mindful and doing something that is so fluid, so unforgiving can spark ideas about an essay I want to write. I really think creativity breeds more creativity. You don’t have to do just that one thing that you’re think you’re creative at. You can start something new. It will still feed the thing that you think that you’re good at. Just keep doing it. Keep forcing yourself to sit down and have that time to allow that part of your brain to work. At least for me, I know that different parts of my brain will supersede my creativity sometimes. I have to really slow it down and try to find that again. Sometimes that means listening to great music. Sometimes it means watching a movie that I love. Also, the idea that there’s beauty in everything, that idea that there’s this perfect system that’s at work here, there’s something about just that mindset that lends itself to more creative thinking, thinking outside of the box, thinking in new ways how to share a part of yourself. Ultimately, that’s what art should be, sharing who you are. Hopefully, that resonates. It can resonate in different ways for different people.

Zibby: Very true. Thank you. Thanks for sharing this time with me and for using this limited focus time here.

Alyssa: Of course. Thank you for allowing me a chance to be on your podcast.

Zibby: Of course. I hope you feel better and that all the symptoms go away and that your kids keep loving your books. I think that’s the coolest.

Alyssa: Thank you. Be well.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Alyssa: Bye.