Kris Ball started writing when she was 6 years old — poetry, song lyrics, short stories. Ball said in the opening of one of her books that, sitting at the foot of her bed, her Aunt Janice — a woman 10 years younger than Ball’s “hands-off” mother — encouraged her to write and “would listen to [her] stupid poems.”
“She always said, ‘Well, that’s really good. You’re a really good writer,’” Ball, 2000 Ball State graduate and dining worker at Woodworth Complex, said. “I was this dumb, little kid, and she’d always [say], ‘You need to keep writing. You should keep writing.’”
As a first-grader, Ball performed a play she wrote about talking animals for the kindergarten class at her school. Now, she is a published author with a poetry and prose book and two children’s books, the latter featuring a brown-haired bear in a Pendleton sweatshirt, jeans and Nikes as the “author.”
Max the Bear was a stuffed animal Ball’s almost 31-year-old son, Adam Lawson, would sleep with as a child. However, after Ball took Max to Pendleton Elementary School during her janitor shift, she and Max were asked by teachers to read for classes.
“I was taking Max with his clothes and his wagon, and I was reading to the kindergarteners and the second-graders and the preschoolers and the special needs kids, and they just loved him,” Ball said. “I would read to this class, and teachers in the next class over would hear about it. They’re like, ‘Hey, can you come and read to our class tomorrow?’”
After a teacher at Pendleton encouraged her to write a book, Ball wrote, “How To Survive A Stuffed Bear Attack,” through the perspective of Max the Bear. She said this decision came from her experience reading to classes with children who believed Max was alive.
However, the book, which she wrote to just make people laugh, began to have a life of its own for one teacher at the school.
“[The teacher] goes, ‘No, your book has an important message,’” Ball said. “And I said, ‘It does?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, this book is about love.’”
Max the Bear once again came into the spotlight for Ball’s second book, “Bears Against Bullies,” but without the backing of a publishing contract, the glossy and illustrated pages from the first book turned into photographs Ball took herself for the second book — including a park in the town she lived in, a family-used daycare and other locations.
Even the name of one of the characters, Froggie Nelsons, came from Ball’s own life.
“My nephew would play football with his bears and his frogs … And the star quarterback frog was named Froggie Nelsons,” Ball said. “So, my brother-in-law and my nephew said if I ever wrote a book with a frog in it that the frog had to be Froggie Nelsons.”
For her third book, though, the “endearing” qualities of Max the Bear and Froggie Nelsons that had previously encapsulated her pages disappeared. Instead, the first page depicts a bear cast away in the shadows, and the reader is greeted not by childhood innocence but by a woman screaming through cobwebs on the front cover.
This was not a children’s book.
Ball knew her book would be titled “Screaming in Autopilot” from the beginning and said she wrote the book because “[she] wanted to be heard.”
“[The title of the book] is how I feel in my life, like I’m not in control,” Ball said. “Like I’m in autopilot, like you’re screaming, like you can’t say anything. Like you don’t have any control, like somebody else is in control.”
Lynn Lamb, the book’s graphic designer, interacted with Ball through social media as they were both part of the virtual writing community. Ball reached out personally to Lamb to be the designer for “Screaming in Autopilot.”
"The first thing that caught my attention was that amazing title,” Lamb said, “and my brain just blew up with ideas of what I could do with that title for a cover."
The book depicts poetry and prose from Ball’s life, created over the last 20 years, and features a trigger warning for “incest, child abuse and trauma, suicide and/or death, depression and alcoholism,” before some chapters. Ball was abused as a child, and it remained unreported by her family.
She said some of the pieces in the book were written when she was still angry, and she wants people to see the freedom in working through anger. In one poem titled, “Letter To My Son,” she wrote that her anger kept her “living as a sibling” to her son as he grew up.
“I was 30 years old — I [will] never forget,” Ball said. “I woke up one day, and I was like, ‘You know what? My parents don’t care if I’m angry at them. They don’t care. I’m not hurting them. I’m hurting me, I’m hurting Adam.’”
Ball also included some humorous written pieces in “Screaming in Autopilot” because she wanted to lighten the mood of the book and not make it too sad. Skyler Petro, 2018 Ball State graduate and close friend of Ball, said humor is part of Ball’s personality.
"[The book] made me cry,” Petro said. “I thought I knew her before, but when I read that, I was like, 'There's things that I didn't know — she shouldn't have had to go through that.’ But then her sense of humor comes out, too, and you're like, 'Yep, this is Kris.'"
Ball wants people to believe they can achieve hope and peace in their lives. She thinks the book helps people who are hurting and is relevant because she believes there may be many people who go through situations that aren’t reported, like she did.
“I think [the book is] very relatable,” Lamb said. “Many people have been through what she's been through, and she's very brave to put it all out there."
Despite publishing her book, Ball said she “feels like [she’s] barely dipping her toes in the pool,” and admires the bravery of the generation of students at Ball State who she serves as a dining worker on campus.
“I look around, and I see the kids and nobody's afraid to be themselves,” Ball said. “I’m like, ‘Man, I wish I’d been that brave when I was that age.’ Like, where does it come from? Where does that bravery come from? … If I had been that brave when I was that young, imagine what I could be now.”
Contact Elissa Maudlin with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ejmaudlin.