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Adult coloring books are selling like crazy. Here’s why.

One of today's popular adult coloring books Shutterstock
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The biggest thing in publishing right now is adult coloring books.

Coloring books for grown-ups first took off at the beginning of 2015, and they show no signs of slowing down. Around 12 million adult coloring books were sold last year, up from about 1 million in 2014. Every Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart has a dedicated adult coloring book table; the coloring book craze even drove a 26.4 percent increase in colored pencil sales in 2015. Now Crayola is getting in on the action with Color Escapes, "premium coloring kits specially designed for adults."

Adult coloring books come in three flavors: art, therapy, and novelty.

The undisputed queen of the art coloring books is by Johanna Basford, the Scottish illustrator whom many credit with kick-starting the adult coloring book craze when her Secret Garden coloring book became a surprise runaway best-seller in 2013.

"I work as a commercial illustrator, and for years my clients have been telling me when they see my illustrations that they wanted to color them in," Basford tells NPR. "So when my publishers initially approached me to do a children's coloring book, I said I'd actually like to do one for adults."

Her books are filled with intricate, highly detailed pen-and-ink drawings waiting to be colored in — and once you’ve done your coloring, you can post a photo of your work on social media or send it to the artist herself, who will be happy to post it in her website’s Colouring Gallery. It’s the 21st-century equivalent of sticking your drawing on the fridge door.

Johanna Basford coloring gallery
Johanna Basford fans can send their colored-in pages to the artist to display on her website.

At the end of the day, though, you buy an art coloring book because they are beautiful, and because you want to be part of creating something beautiful too.

In contrast, therapy coloring books focus less on aesthetics and more on how relaxing coloring can be. With utilitarian titles like Stress Relieving Patterns ("provides hours and hours of stress relief, mindful calm, and fun, creative expression") and Color Me Calm: 100 Coloring Templates for Meditation and Relaxation (A Zen Coloring Book), they sell themselves as a kind of analog Candy Crush: a simple, colorful way to clear your mind and chill out.

Finally, there are novelty coloring books. This is the latest wave of the coloring book craze, so there currently isn't much sales data available. But publishers are betting that a market hungry for coloring books will welcome titles like Color Me Swoon: The Beefcake Activity Book for Good Color-Inners as Well as Beginners (for people who've always wanted to contour Channing Tatum's abs in Burnt Sienna) and Have a Nice Life, Asshole (for people who find coloring in swear words to be a productive reaction to a breakup).

Novelty coloring books lean hard on the ironic distance between the medium and the message: Coloring books are nostalgic and make you feel like a kid again, but these coloring books are raunchy and say "fuck" a lot.

It’s the nostalgia angle that makes the current adult coloring book craze so different from the last one, in the 1960s. As the New Republic reports, adult coloring books of the '60s were political and subversive; consider The John Birch Society Coloring Book, with its blank page captioned, "How many Communists can you find in this picture? I can find 11. It takes practice." Those coloring books depended less on nostalgia and a longing for childhood than they did on sheer anarchic absurdity; they were like political cartoons.

Today’s coloring books aren’t about politics: Their appeal depends fundamentally on nostalgia. It might be nostalgia for a child’s freedom to participate in making beautiful things, or for a child’s freedom from stress, or it might be ironic nostalgia, but the nostalgia is always there.

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