Adult colouring books have been topping headlines as the latest craze in book publishing, but should we be surprised?

The current bestselling title at Amazon is Secret Garden, an Adult Colouring Book (no…not that kind of adult!). Illustrated by Johanna Basford, it is a beautiful compilation of pen-and-ink illustrations just begging to be coloured in. It even doubles as a treasure hunt, with hidden tiny creatures and even blank spaces to continue drawing!

This news has come as a surprise to many. But in reality, it is a symptom of a recent trend that has begun to emerge: our culture is now encouraging us to embrace childhood nostalgia rather than dictating terms of adult behaviour.

 We are now finally asking ourselves: what is wrong about wanting to have a colouring book? At what age did it become unacceptable to have that outlet? Many people still draw or doodle – this is just colouring in between lines drawn by someone infinitely more skillful – creating a ‘framework’, to bring in a buzzword!

Similarly, places like soft play centres are increasingly being inundated by requests from not-so-young groups of adults for after-hours bookings. Who doesn’t secretly wish they could spend a carefree hour hurling themselves down spiral slides and wading through ball pits?

Perhaps the idea of adults blowing off steam in a soft play centre isn’t so far fetched (been there, done that!). But how would you feel about attending an adult preschool? Preschool Mastermind in New York describes itself as the ‘world’s first day-care-like experience for adults…who miss the squish of Play-Doh between their fingers’. Yes…seriously. Their promotional video is below, and shows everything from dress-up to finger-painting and nap time.

So where has this sudden outpouring of nostalgia come from, and when did adults start seeking outlets like soft play and colouring books?

The Candy Crush culture

I would suggest that the digital era has helped loosen some of our inhibitions about what acceptable ‘grown-up’ behaviour is defined as. We are almost constantly wired up to work emails and are expected to behave professionally both on and offline, and in our down-time, the swing the other way has become more extreme.

Digital games are a striking example. Almost every segment of society has fallen victim to a fad like Farmville or Angry Birds. We only have to go back a few months to Conservative MP Nigel Mills who was photographed playing Candy Crush, and the number of people who stepped up to defend him, arguing that the Work and Pensions Committee sessions were ‘boring’. Many even admitted having done the same thing in a long meeting or conference. On my train on the way to and from work, almost 90% of people are wired up and are either playing games, checking Facebook or browsing articles. Grown-up friends and family see no problem in inviting me to endless games of ‘Jelly Bean Saga’, or whatever the latest social game is.

Another slant on this is Facebook’s recent exploitation of nostalgia. Recognising the popularity of TimeHop, Facebook has rolled out its own version where it ‘flashes back’ posts or photos from the user’s timeline, inviting them to re-share it. For some of us, these posts go back nearly 8 years, and provoke fond memories of school or university. Linkedin may be the space to celebrate professional success, but on Facebook it is the silly jokes, flashbacks, dressing-up parties and cooking disasters that are popular with our peers. Is our increased openness about what makes us tick making us more accepting of our collective desire to play?

Play and creative spaces

Top digital employers like Google have connected this need to play with an innate creativity, and have provided toys and even slides in their offices! The definition of creativity has been wrangled over by plenty of experts in all fields recently, but there seems to be a general acceptance that ‘creative’ ideas are associated with out-of-the-box, childish thinking. A stereotypical ‘creative space’ will also have echos of childhood, with bold colours and a focus on simulating the senses.

Secret Garden is simply another brightly coloured block in this regression into childhood, and it’s not the only book to provide an adult solution to a child-like desire. A popular craze a few months ago was Wreck This Journal; an illustrated book with suggestions ranging from ‘Poke holes in this page’ to ‘Colour outside these lines’. The concept is very similar to Secret Garden, but is more subversive and focused on ‘creative destruction’.

These books and many others like it have a common thread that makes them so popular with adults. The person engaging with them doesn’t have to have any artistic or even creative talent, but what they create is still unique to them. Few ‘grown-up’ experiences offer us that satisfaction, or the opportunity to make mistakes; to metaphorically colour outside the lines.

Peter Pan’s Neverland has a hint of appeal for even the most serious of us. Most of us have, at some stage, sighed enviously at a child happily immersed in a colouring book with their bright pens and pencils spread around them. Now we’re accepting that grown-ups can have fun too, and that a culture of creativity must go hand in hand with a culture of childhood and play. Bring on the colouring books, sticky journal pages and brightly-coloured pieces of digital candy!


Cover image courtesy of


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