Q+A

Adult colouring book trend going strong

They're topping the best-seller lists and winning more and more new fans. But while some people sharpen their pencil crayons, others scratch their heads at the adult colouring book trend. CBC pop culture columnist Tara McCarthy fills us in.

Art therapy or regression? CBC pop culture columnist Tara McCarthy fills us in

While children's colouring books tend to be simple, adult books are filled with sophisticated and intricate illustrations. (Tara McCarthy/CBC)

Don't be confused if you see "colouring book" on your partner's or parent's Christmas list this year. They're not just for kids anymore.

Colouring books for adults are a hot trend in publishing right now. They're touted as a therapeutic activity to de-stress and increase mindfulness. They're dominating best-seller lists and compelling countless grown-ups to dig out their old Laurentian pencil crayons and sharpen up.

We spoke to CBC pop culture columnist Tara McCarthy about it. 

What's driving this trend towards colouring books for adults?

This recent craze was ignited in 2013 when a British publishing house asked Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford to create a colouring book for children, but she offered to draw one for adults instead. Secret Garden became an international bestseller. She's released two more this year — Enchanted Forest and Lost Ocean. All three are now on Amazon.ca's top 20 bestsellers list, along with nine other colouring books for adults. Publishers say they can barely keep up with demand.
Three adult colouring books — including Harry Potter, and two by Scottish Illustrator Johanna Basford — topped Amazon.ca's Most Wished For list this month. (Scholastic/Johanna Basford)

What is in these books?

Children's colouring books tend to be simple, but these adult books are filled with sophisticated and intricate illustrations. Basford's designs are very detailed images of nature, with animals and underwater scenes. Her work is focused on the artistic side of the trend. ​

But there are plenty of others — from Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, to the Indie Rock Colouring Book featuring Broken Social Scene, Bon Iver, and The National. There's also an unofficial Taylor Swift colouring book, Color Me Swiftly, and Color Me Swoon, featuring a collection of male heartthrobs.

On the psychological side, there are titles like Color Me Calm, Stress Relieving Patterns, and The Mindfulness Colouring Book. Even Crayola jumped in recently with its series Color Escapes offering geometric, kaleidoscope, nature scenes, or a garden theme. 

Why are they so popular?

Many people point to the "Peter Pan" market — people enticed by the nostalgia of childhood. But I think for many people, it's just a great hobby like knitting or crafting.
Ellen Davignon of Whitehorse has a growing collection of colouring books. She said she's never been a 'crafty' person, so colouring satisfies her creative, artistic side. (Tara McCarthy/CBC)

I spoke to 78-year-old Yukon writer Ellen Davignon, who has a growing collection of adult colouring books. ​Davignon said she finds them to be a relaxing and a way to use her imagination and it gives her a great sense of accomplishment to flip through her completed edition of Enchanted Forest. She said she's never been a "crafty" person, so colouring satisfies her creative, artistic side. She's even encouraged friends at a Whitehorse seniors home to get into it.

What do critics say about these books?

Every trend has people who won't buy in. Some therapists and psychologists bristle at calling the books "art therapy." According to some: therapeutic, yes; therapy, no. Others have called the trend "infantile" or "escapist."

Actor/comedian Russell Brand weighed in with a video rant questioning whether these books are a sign of the apocalypse. He argued we should be doing something more meaningful with our lives than colouring.

I think Brand's missing the point — these books aren't meant to replace meditation, yoga, knitting, reading or any other hobby, they're simply another option. Binge-watching Netflix isn't all that meaningful, either, but if it helps people unwind, I'm not against it. And look at people like Davignon — it makes her feel like an artist, she has fun, and takes pride in what she's done. I don't see anything wrong with that.

Would you ever take up colouring again?

I have, actually! I bought myself a pocket-sized colouring book filled with flowers and patterns last weekend. I've always been a doodler, but this gives me the opportunity to just get colourful and not think about the design part. It's a simple way to pass the time or to take a timeout during a busy day, that doesn't involve a screen.

My ideal setting would be at home on a cold winter day with a record on, a fresh cup of coffee, an array of pencils, and a good colouring book. 

About the Author

Tara McCarthy

Pop culture enthusiast Tara McCarthy was born and raised in Mississauga, Ont., but has called Whitehorse home since 2007. She's an editor, writer, broadcaster and dog lover. Follow her on Twitter: @CBCradiotara

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