Coming of Age Books: When Representation Really Matters | Stacy Padula

Stacy Padula is an author and educator who grew up thinking grade school would be like the world she read about in books. She quickly discovered, however, the experience of being a teenager is a lot more complicated than what the media portrayed.

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Stacy Padula Author

Growing up is a complicated process that we all have to go through. Being a teenager should be a time of self discovery and embracing your individuality; however, that’s just not the reality for many young people. Mental health struggles, addiction, the pressure to fit in and succeed are just pieces of the complex puzzle that is coming of age. 

Stacy Padula has been writing from the moment she was taught how to in kindergarten. As a child, she loved how books had the power to transport her to other worlds of adventure and excitement, and she wanted to be able to do it on her own. She recalls writing her first book and illustrating it all on her own as a gift to her parents when she was a child, and from that moment on her relationship with storytelling began to blossom. 

As she entered middle and high school, she quickly realized that the worlds she loved falling into through reading didn’t actually represent what it felt like to be a teenager, so she decided to write her own. 

“I remember reading tons of books about junior high and high school at that age that didn’t feel relatable at all in terms of what me and my peers were actually experiencing, so I decided to create my own more realistic telling of the lives of teenagers as they come of age throughout grade school. 

When I got to middle school especially, I was shocked at the things that kids were actually doing. I was a naive child back then so witnessing all these different experiences became honestly overwhelming. I was upset that I spent so much time reading books set during middle/high school that painted such an unrealistic picture of what those years would actually be like,” Padula explained. 

At the time, Padula was witnessing what many of us have felt and seen throughout our own grade school years. Issues of mental health struggles, drug use, peer pressure, bullying, and other serious topics took a real life form through her fellow students. Throughout those years, unbeknownst to her, a passion had been born parallel with her love for writing. Bringing awareness to issues of mental health and all its forms through writing and realistic stories could be beneficial to new generations of readers who also might feel like the literature they grew up reading didn’t reflect their actual experiences growing up.

“Writing became my favorite hobby as a child. I would bring a notebook with me everywhere, and I just started creating my own stories which eventually led to me writing my own series of books as an 8-year-old. I recall getting very attached to the characters I would create and having this sense of incompleteness with the stories I was writing for them, so I just kept developing them even further until I felt satisfied with how they ended.”

Padula recalls a time in which she was struggling with the juxtaposition of the stories she grew up reading with the reality she was experiencing, so when a school project on peer pressure was assigned to her class, she decided to take matters into her own hands, and create a story of what it truly was like to be a teenager coming into their own. 

“When I was in 8th grade I was assigned a project on peer pressure. Most kids made posters or presentations on the subject, but I ended up writing a 90 page book set in a high school, even though I was in middle school at the time. 

The book that I wrote for that assignment encapsulated the 14-year-old experience as I witnessed it, and when I moved on to high school I had that same intense connection to the characters that I created like I did when I wrote stories as a kid, so I continued on to write 3-4 more books throughout high school to continue my characters stories. 

It was such an interesting experience as a writer to create these stories of teenagers coming of age as I was doing that myself. However as I continued to mature myself, I really learned that so many of the books that I had read, and was reading at the time, painted such an unrealistic picture of the high school experience, which motivated me to continue to develop these stories based on my own knowledge.”

When Padula graduated high school and entered college, she took the time to learn how to be the best possible writer she could be, which didn’t leave her with a lot of down time to continue developing her own stories. 

Once she graduated college, however, she took a look into her past and revisited the book series she wrote throughout grade school, and was quickly shocked at the maturity of the content that she portrayed in the books. She then had the realization that, at the time, she was writing from personal experience, which gave her an idea:

“I came to the realization that the books themselves could actually help younger individuals today not feel so alone in their struggles. So I decided to go back into the books that I wrote as a teenager and edit them to match my new standards as an adult writer. In 2010, my first book was published.” 

Padula’s first series was entitled the Montgomery Lake High book series, and they are the fully developed stories that she wrote as a teenager. The five-book series was published between the years 2010 – 2014. Fast forward to 2017, Padula then began writing her well-known Gripped series, which is a spin-off of Montgomery Lake High, serving as both a prequel and a sequel through flashbacks and a longer timeline. 

“With Gripped, I really wanted the stories to have a heavier focus on addiction, because unfortunately as I grew older I had a more developed understanding of what addiction was, and witnessed too many young people fall prey to its power. It’s heartbreaking to witness people you love and care about struggle with the disease of addiction, so my hope with the Gripped series was to bring awareness to the seriousness of the issue to kids, ideally before they’re exposed to things like opioids in the real world.”

Padula unfortunately knew of many young people who went into drug consumption thinking it wouldn’t be harmful, which is rarely the case for many teenagers. She wanted to educate her readers on the reality of what addiction and struggling with mental health looked like, and doing so through her writing would give her the best chance to convey that message. 

“In Montgomery Lake High one of the bigger characters of Gripped is mentioned, but he’s more of a side character. The character was a star football player who injured his knee, was put on pain meds and unfortunately became addicted. With Gripped I developed that story even further, as well as with another character who’s also mentioned in Montgomery Lake High, who struggles greatly with anxiety.”

Stacy Padula Author
Stacy Padula

“When I was looking back at the stories I wrote as a teenager, I realized that the characters and their struggles were a part of a much larger commentary that I wasn’t conscious of when I initially wrote them. I was experiencing a lot of the struggles that are written about, so as I got older I felt even more motivated to publish them because I think they offer a really valuable insight into the things that a lot of us are scared to talk about.”

“To this day there’s a lot of adults who want to shield their children and teenagers from stories regarding drugs, sex, mental health, etc. because they think they’re protecting them, when the reality is these kids are exposed to the pressures of it all every single day.”

Padula’s work with teenagers and their caregivers goes beyond the intricate realities she’s written about in her acclaimed book series. She’s also been involved in the private education field for 14 years, working with high school students as they navigate their transition into college and adulthood. Through this work she was able to see first hand how much of a difference accurate representation made for younger individuals. 

“Representation truly matters. I’ve had plenty of students tell me before that they’re embarrassed by how mainstream media represents the younger generation and what they think is the teenage experience. There’s a lot of overdramatization that paints teenagers as these beings who are obsessed with social media and becoming an influencer, and while that does represent a certain population of young people, there’s so much more to the coming of age experience that is rarely dissected or discussed in movies, TV shows, books, etc. 

This is why it was so important for me to not only publish the Montgomery Lake High series, but continue it using the same lens I wrote the initial stories with. Kids don’t feel like they’re being accurately represented, so when the students and teenagers who’ve read my books throughout my career tell me that they feel genuine connection to the stories and characters, it makes it all so worth it to me because that’s also what I wanted out of the content I was consuming growing up.”

In 2016, Padula decided to take her message a step further through a company she started called South Shore College Consulting and Tutoring (SSCCT), a group that helps students and parents navigate the college application process. 

The individuals involved in SSCCT are there for families every step of the way. From the initial discussions of what the child would like to study in college, to analyzing what programs and establishments would be the best fit for them, and helping them create the best application for the establishment as well. 

A major piece of this company is passion, and making sure that the child is prioritizing their interests so that Padula and others can assist them in creating the best possible plan to accomplish their future college goals. 

“From helping students prepare for standardized tests, to crafting best-fit college lists, we specialize in making the college application process a positive experience for students and families. It’s such a wonderful experience helping these families get through what can be such a stressful process, and to break it down for them so they can prioritize what to focus on and when, and not get overwhelmed by a giant check list of things that need to be done within those last two years of high school.”

Beyond SSCCT, Padula has also worked as a director of operations for a college counseling company and educational group which involved training tutors and creating curriculums that could be used by tutors as they help high school students navigate their futures post-graduation. She’s written educational works that help students write college essays as well as study for exams like the SAT’s.

These aspects of her career are just pieces of what make Padula such an inspiring individual when it comes to creating safe spaces for young people as they navigate the complexities of not only their education, but their own personal growth as well. Whether it’s the stories she writes about with her books, or the educational texts she’s provided for students, Padula has always wanted to alleviate some of the many pressures that teenagers endure, and she’s been able to do exactly that. 

“My favorite part of my days working with those educational groups, and today with SSCCT, is the actual one-on-one time I got to spend with the students. I love working with these young minds and helping them figure out what they’re really passionate about and want to pursue in college and life.”

One of the messages Padula hopes that parents and caregivers gain from the work she does is that it’s important to listen to the young people in their lives. Becoming a space of safety that allows teenagers to feel vulnerable and open about their experiences is important. 

It’s understandable that parents and guardians are nervous about their children being exposed to things like peer pressure or drugs, but if you become an individual that your child feels safe enough to talk openly about those things with, it’s more likely that they’ll come to you to gain a greater understanding of what their witnessing and/or experiencing. 

“My parents were always like that, so growing up I knew I could always go to them during times of vulnerability and ask questions or talk about my emotions and because of that I’m now able to be that safe space for the students that I see. When we talk it’s not always just about college prep, it’s about the realities of their lives,” she explained. 

In terms of helping the younger generation on their own paths of self-discovery and questioning, Padula often uses personality tests with the students she’s worked with to help them narrow down certain hobbies or interests that align with the type of individual they are. Everyone needs to have a source of joy in their life that doesn’t have to do with school or a job. It’s that inherent need to feel like your own person that so many of us struggle with, and discovering your passions is the first step towards becoming the person you want to be. 

Stacy Padula Author

“Through my work I’ve been able to have a lot of conversations with high school students about their own experiences, and how they can relate to a lot of the actual content in my books. It’s wonderful to have that openness with them, but beyond that I’ve seen them become more comfortable with their parents/guardians in regards to their emotions and experiences.”

Stacy Padula Author

In 2020, NBA Coach Brett Gunning and Padula teamed up to create another series of books to help an even younger demographic navigate growing up. The On The Right Path (OTRP) book series was written to align with a non-profit organization of the same name, OTRP, originally created by Gunning with the purpose of guiding youth basketball players on the right path to achieving their maximum potential through education, mentorship, and skill development. 

The core principles of OTRP are guidance, inspiration, and creativity. The book series focuses on six life-skill pillars: Loving Others, Being Unselfish, Staying Healthy & Strong, Showing Respect, Showing Forgiveness, and Having Fun.

“Gunning initially reached out to me to create this book series that would align with the values of his non-profit organization. He essentially wanted to teach kids important life lessons through the art of basketball, and I immediately was on board, because the whole purpose of the books aligned greatly with the reason that I published my books in the first place; giving young people life lessons through accurate representation.”

The On The Right Path book series currently consists of 3 books, with 3 more in the works as well. 

“The On The Right Path book series is a slam dunk! The stories are rich with important lessons that kids will enjoy reading. It belongs in every home,” stated Mike D’Antoni, NBA Coach

“The On The Right Path books belong in every school, library, and home, as they teach invaluable life lessons to children in an entertaining and relatable way,” said Kevin McHale, NBA Hall of Famer.

Padula’s amazing work providing representation and accurate teenage experiences through her books will now be able to reach even more audiences, as her Gripped series is currently in the process of becoming a television show. 

Mark Blutman is an Emmy award winning writer and producer, known for hit shows like Boy Meets World and Ghostwriter. About two and a half years ago, Blutman and Padula were connected by producer David Gunning to begin adapting her Gripped book series into a TV show. As previously mentioned, the Gripped series follows one of the original side characters from Montgomery Lake High who becomes addicted to opioids after sustaining a painful football injury. 

Gripped being both a prequel and a sequel to my other stories allowed us to create a genuine introduction to the stories that we will be telling through this TV series.”

The Covid-19 pandemic unfortunately shut down Hollywood as Blutman and Padula began collaborating, but as of April 2021 the two were able to reunite with everyone to restart the process to bring these stories together. Blutman spent that time reading all five books in the series twice, and like fans of Padula he’s anxiously awaiting for the sixth novel in the series to be completed. 

Stacy Padula Author

“Opioid addiction is all around us. It’s in our neighborhoods, in our schools, our parks and tragically our Doctors make it readily available. The crisis is here and getting worse. If we don’t show it how can we expect to talk about it? TV is supposed to reflect real life. Addiction among teens is real. It’s time,” said Mark Blutman.

Stacy Padula Author

Gunning explained how “some of my greatest heartache stems from the Opioid Crisis.  I’ve lost Family and Friends, and I don’t wish that pain upon anyone.  I’ve always aimed to bring awareness to all those around me, and to help battle Opioid Abuse.  I aim to portray that fight through the Gripped series.”

Right now the show is still in its initial stages of development, but Padula is hoping audiences will hear more about when the series will come to life soon. For now, she’s excited to be developing a show that will spark conversations surrounding addiction and mental health in teenagers. 

Padula concluded with some general advice that she’s learned through her own writing and teaching when it comes to helping teenagers and young adults navigate the real world as they come into it: 

In a world that’s pulling us all in so many different directions where we’re constantly bombarded with social media and tragedy, we need to start prioritizing taking the time to be with yourself and discover who you are outside of the context of what society is presenting us. Individuality is sacred, everyone has their own journeys when it comes to self-discovery and figuring out what personal values we uphold. The first step to all of that, however, is giving yourself permission to be vulnerable and open about your genuine feelings and passions. 

It can be hard to figure out what actually sparks joy within you when the world is constantly telling you what you should be like, so give yourself a break, and show yourself some compassion.”

Stacy Padula’s books are currently available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and most major retailers.