Alyssa Milano carried a message of hope to independent booksellers in her closing remarks in Pittsburgh at the American Booksellers Association’s seventh annual Children’s Institute. The author shared how her forthcoming middle grade book Hope, which will be published by Scholastic in October, fits into a career of activism that goes back almost as far as her acting career, which started at age seven, and gained renown through the show Who’s the Boss?
Interviewed on stage by Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of the St. Louis-based Left Bank Books, Milano gave attendees a glimpse of her week, which began with a multi-actor theatrical reading of the Mueller Report in New York, followed by attending both Democratic presidential primary debates, and an attempt to break into a government-run unaccompanied child immigrant detention facility in Homestead, Fla.
She said her love of activism began at age 15, when AIDS activist Ryan White asked her to kiss him on television to dispel false rumors that HIV-AIDS could be contracted from casual contact. Milano did, and said it changed her life. “It was a big moment, a big thing for me in my life, because I realized what it meant to have a platform and why I could never take that for granted, and exactly what the weight of that responsibility means.”
Since then, Milano has devoted much of her time aside from acting and her family to activism. She is a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, and a prominent advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, meeting for private tutoring with a constitutional law professor to ensure that she is an effective advocate.
It was an emotional closing to the institute, and a reminder of the context in which the week’s educational sessions, author meet-and-greets, and publisher meetings were occurring. Milano acknowledge how discouraged many activists currently feel. “There was a time where activism meant progressing things forward. Right now, activism means we’re trying not to have our rights that were already set forth rolled back, so it feels a lot like you’re walking on a treadmill, because you’re not fighting for progress, you’re just trying to dig your heels in and make sure they don’t take away what we’ve already fought for.”
She teared up as she explained the impetus for her work, telling booksellers that her own kids—a seven-year-old son and four-year-old daughter—give her strength. “I’m very honest with my children about everything that I do, my activism, because I want them to know that—and this might sound morbid—but God forbid anything happened to me, I want them to know that I was fighting the good fight and it’s something that’s such a part of who I am, in my heart, that hopefully they would understand.”
Milano’s desire to write a middle grade book was informed by the same energy she puts into her activism. Co-authored with Debbie Rigaud and illustrated by Eric S. Keyes, Hope is the story of a science-loving 11-year-old girl who is transitioning to middle school and learning what it’s like to grow up. “This first book is about finding your voice, and what it means to stand up for yourself, and to use that voice to do good and to be strong.”
Her own favorite books as a child were written by Shel Silverstein. “I’m dyslexic,” Milano said. “I think [poetry] worked for me because not only the rhythm of what poetry is, but also the fact that they were in small doses really helped me with my reading.”
Hope is the first book in a series, and Milano said the second volume will tell the story of Hope’s attempt to save an animal shelter. “I think everyone in this room has the capacity to be a community organizer, and we need so much more of that going on in our country right now,” she said.
“It’s not about indoctrinating them into a certain political ideology,” she added. “It’s about encouraging what a child already has in them. I think that every child wants to help, to make a difference.”