Zentangle, Zen doodle, tangle, coloring book—all of these words reference a hot trend in every bookstore or online publishing market: coloring activity books for adults. When I visited my local bookstore this weekend, next to the escalator stood a special display for doodling, tangling and coloring—all intended for, but not limited to—adults.

Book Display Front

I was tempted to make a purchase, but couldn’t justify doing so because I have an untouched coloring book waiting for me at home. After discovering in late March that my local Barnes & Noble stores had sold all copies of Johanna Basford’s The Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book, I turned to Amazon. But Amazon, too, reported the title was on back order. I ordered it, anyway, and it finally arrived last week. I noticed, on the copyright page, that the book is so popular that it was reprinted five times in 2013, six times in 2014, and twice so far this year. Basford’s newest book, just released this year, is An Enchanted Forest: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring, and it, too, is on back order.

While I was waiting for The Secret Garden, I received a note from the author via Amazon, something that’s a first for me.


Firstly, thank you for buying one of my books! The coloring craze is sweeping the world!

Perhaps more importantly though, I’m so sorry you have had to wait so long for your book to arrive. I think it’s fair to say we’ve been completely overwhelmed by global demand for the books and it has caught us quite off guard!

The ink is *almost* dry on your book and we hope to have it in your hands very, soon. I’m so sorry you’ve had to wait so long, if I could get into the print factory and help speed things up myself, I would!

As a thank you for your patience and to tide you over until your book arrives, we’ve put together 3 pages from Enchanted Forest that you can print at home and start coloring. Think of it as a warm-up!

Thank you again for bearing with us and happy coloring!

Johanna Basford

There are other adult coloring books out there, but Secret Garden and its companion, Enchanted Forest, are probably the king and queen of the genre—in other words, something pretty special. When my book arrived, I was delighted to discover 96 pages of beautiful pen and ink drawings on thick, creamy paper. The drawings feature the flora and fauna of Basford’s home in rural Scotland. At the beginning of the book is a guide to creatures that are hidden within the detailed drawings. If you visit Artist Goes Outside The Lines With Coloring Books For Grown-Ups on the National Public Radio Web site, you can see some images from the book and listen to an interview of the author.

Secret Garden

So, what’s behind the lure of coloring books for adults? According to Basford, coloring is a charming and nostalgic activity, as well as a nice way to be creative. “You don’t have to sit down with a blank sheet of paper,” she says, “or, you know, have that scary moment of thinking what can I draw? The outlines are already there for you, so it’s just something that you can do quietly for a couple of hours that, you know, is hand held and analog and quiet.”

For me a coloring book like this evokes childhood memories, when my younger brother and I spent hours coloring pages of cartoon characters with fresh crayons. Sometimes a little more than the coloring book pages got colored—I recall running out to the end of the driveway to share our newly colored fingernails with the paper boy delivering the evening newspaper from his bike basket. Those coloring books were eventually the springboard for our own drawings of paper dress-up dolls that populated our Lego world. Back in those days, there weren’t any elaborate Lego sets with theme-based figures. Coloring during childhood, as it is today, was a soothing activity that fired our imaginations with colors and shapes, and created stories in our minds.

According to Elena Santos in Coloring Isn’t Just For Kids. It Can Actually Help Adults Combat Stress., coloring “…generates wellness, quietness and also stimulates brain areas related to motor skills, the senses and creativity.” She points out that one of the first psychologists to use coloring as a de-stressing activity was Carl Jung in the early 20th century, who asked his patients to color mandalas, circular geometric designs that have their origins in the culture of India. The reason the activity works for de-stressing purposes is that it causes us to focus on something other than our worries, much in the same way that other repetitive hands-on activities do, such as crochet, knitting, weaving or cross-stitch. Santos points out that another psychologist, Gloria Martínez Ayala, believes that coloring activates multiple areas of our cerebral hemispheres that involve logic, creativity, vision, and fine motor skills.

Coloring books are simply one of the ways that the coloring trend for adults shows up. Have you participated in a “paint and sip” party lately, where an artist leads a group of adults in copying a painting and enjoying a glass of wine at the same time? If you read Grownups Pay Big Bucks to Attend NYC ‘Adult Preschool’, you’ll learn about adults in Brooklyn, New York who pay $333 to $999 to attend Preschool Mastermind, founded by Michelle Joni, where they can fingerpaint, sing, snack and nap.

According to Jared Keller in The Psychological Case for Adult Play Time, playing (in this case, coloring) is as important for adults as it is for children. “More generally, for both children and adults,” writes Keller, “it really gives us a chance to build our imagination. The fantastical becomes real, the real becomes fantastical; we can try out a new hypothesis without consequence.” He points out that Americans in particular downplay the importance of playtime as they aim to be more productive, more efficient, and more in charge. Americans, he says, tend to be proud of not taking time off, whereas in other countries such as France, adults are allowed to take a month off for play.

Obviously, you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars—or even $25—to reap the benefits of coloring. You can purchase a coloring book with elaborate designs such as those found in Johanna Basford’s books or Lucy Muckow and Angela Porter’s Color Me Calm, or color geometric designs found in books like Creative Haven Mandalas or Creative Haven Paisley Patterns. You can learn how to Zen doodle within shapes in Sandy Steen Bartholomew’s Totally Tangled: Zentangle and Beyond, or download printable designs. You can even color an embroidery design with colored pencils, such as the downloadable design found in Crafty’s Staying Inside the Lines: Pencil Coloring Embroidery Designs.

Feeling a little stressed? Coloring is cheap therapy.

Image courtesy of dan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of dan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

© 2015 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

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3 thoughts on “The lure of coloring activity books for adults”

  1. I loved to color as a kid — and I used to color with my TeamMate mentee before she went to high school.
    It’s probably a fad, but I get it.

  2. Arg! Why did you go and link so many cool books?! I love coloring, and I don’t even always go for the books actually aimed at adults! Secret Garden looks like such a neat book, and I’m always tempted to get mandala books. I really enjoy Celtic/knot designs, too (surprise!).

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