Thinking outside the lines: How adult colouring books have become a publishing phenomenon

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Long considered a staple way of occupying children for hours, developing dexterity and teaching how to hold onto a pen or pencil, colouring books are making a splash online as booksellers have revealed that collections of patterns for adults are flying off the shelves.

The craze has become so popular that now  five of the bestselling books on Amazon are colouring patterns for adults. Number seven is The Secret Garden,created by Johanna Basford printed in several languages and retailing for €10 a book. It's sold more than one million copies.

On this evening’s The Right Hook, guest host Shane Coleman will be speaking to publisher Ana McLaughlin about the unlikely success of adult colouring books, why adults are so drawn to the practice, and whether she ever colours outside the lines. Tune in live at 6.45pm or listen back to the podcasts here.

It is believed that stressed-out adults are drawn to colouring for its therapeutic qualities, the process of slowly completing the patterns an ideal way to unwind from the daily grind.

In the twelve months between Christmas 2013 and 2014, Waterstones reported a 300 percent increase in sales of colouring books for adults in the UK. In March, the retailer made a colouring collection its ‘Book of the Month’, the first time a colouring book ever claimed the title.

France, with its rich history of admiration for cartoons and comic books, is where adult colouring first took off, with French women particularly fond of flocking to book shops in search of challenging and highly intricate albums de coloriages.

Colouring things in has been psychologically deemed overwhelmingly beneficial to adults, and their use as a relaxation technique dates back as far as Carl G Jüng in the early 20th century. Back then, Jüng chose to colour in madalas, concentric circular patterns originating from India.

More than one million copies of Basford's book have been sold around the world [CDxND]

Psychologist Gloria Martínez Ayala explains that when we pick up markers and start colouring in, we engage two different areas in our cerebral cortex."The action involves both logic, by which we colour forms, and creativity, when mixing and matching colors. This incorporates the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in vision and fine motor skills [coordination necessary to make small, precise movements]. The relaxation that it provides lowers the activity of the amygdala, a basic part of our brain involved in controlling emotion that is affected by stress."

In a sense, it’s shifting focus; when colouring in, we stop feeling stressed because we focus on the pattern, not on whatever is stressing us out. And, Martínez Ayala adds, it “brings us back to our childhood, a period in which we most certainly had a lot less stress.”

Others don’t look at adult colouring so favourably, people infantilising their responsibilities or wasting their time, but the importance of play for adults is backed up by clinical research. Many psychologists support the idea that everyone, children of all ages, can reap rewards from taking time to play, which can improve problem solving, creativity, and interpersonal relationships.

As Stuart Brown, author of the international bestseller Play wrote: “As children, our reward for play is strong because we need it to help generate a rapidly developing brain. As adults, the brain is not developing as rapidly and the play drive may not be as strong, so we can do well enough without play in the short term. Our work or other responsibilities often demand we set play aside. But when play is denied over the long term, our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure.”

Whether or not a lack of play is, as Brown suggests, as bad as a lack of sleep to the adult mind, with one million copies of The Secret Garden sold, business is waking up to the potential of providing adults opportunities to recapture their youthful hobbies. Adult summer camps and playgrounds are popping up all over the world, and if current trends steer the course, like the children who these activities and products were originally for, online retailers with dotingly encourage them to grow up, big and strong.

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