Fifty shades of childhood

It’s one of the weirdest trends to hit the publishing business. Nine of Amazon’s top twenty best-selling books have very few words and they didn’t even exist two years ago.

It all started in 2011 when a tiny publishing house in England approached a Scottish freelance illustrator and asked if she’d sketch a coloring book for “The Secret Garden.” The publisher listed it as a coloring book for older children, and then adults started buying it for their kids plus an extra copy for themselves. The book hit France and sold a million copies immediately, then 3 million in China, and within a few months the booksellers is Brazil were running out of colored pencils. Fast forward to today when no one has a reliable count. Adult coloring books are selling faster than we can tally. It’s the biggest section in Shopko’s bookrack.

Some psychologists credit the trend as being the perfect stress relief while others say that adults who fill in lines with color are harkening back to their childhood. A few experts who study human behavior call it a dangerous trend as grownups use coloring books as a way to escape responsibility. Whatever the reason, coloring is a trend that might last longer than the hula-hoop. At least it takes less effort. And in case you’re interested, this August 2 will be National Coloring Day.

As for me, I’m a believer. Once upon a time on a long ago St. Louis airport runway one of my Triopia students buckled herself in, took a deep breath before taking her first flight, grabbed my hand and asked me to pray for her, then got out her coloring book. As the plane took to the air headed toward London, Gail seemed remarkably calm for a first-time flier as her colored pencil worked its way back and forth across the drawing of Mary Poppins. I jokingly asked her if she was going to color her way all across two weeks of Great Britain and she said, “No, just until the plane lands.” Bottom line: it worked, and from that trip onward I’ve stashed a couple of coloring books and pencils into my carryon bag in case any of my group seems a bit squeamish at the prospect of flying.

Back in the days when I taught Jr. High English and we were preparing to take the state-mandated writing exams, I’d hold a brief session with my students and I’d open class with something like, “Okay, want to play a game? Well, tomorrow we’re going to play a really good game called ‘How to fool the State of Illinois!’” This would invariably get the kids’ attention. Nothing pleases an adolescent more than pulling something on adults. I then said, “Tomorrow you’re going to write something and then we’re going to send it into the state … but here’s the trick: They want you all to write using this certain pattern. It’s a bad one, it’s boring, and I don’t ever want you to use it real life, but the State of Illinois thinks it’s great. And I’ll show you how to fool them! Want to learn?” It always worked. I’d teach the kids the torturously dull template designed to make robots out of human beings by all writing in a standard, unimaginative manner and our section would always come back with great test scores. But here’s the kicker: Just before we took the writing test on the following day I’d hand out mimeographed sheets of cartoon line drawings and we’d spend fifteen minutes coloring. Whatever anxieties the kids had going in to the test were usually dissolved with a few strokes of red, blue and yellow.

The national trend is getting good reviews. Everyone from the researchers at Johns Hopkins to the editors of Yoga Journal consider it a form of meditation. They say it allows us to switch off anxiety of the future and dwell in the moment. Most newly born experts in the coloring world advise adults to skip the crayons and go straight to the colored pencils which allow you more precision and bring in the added dimension of color blending.

Mrs. Brim was my second-grade teacher and our afternoon assignment was to color a drawing of a farm scene. I had the standard box of eight colors. Most of us did. But Margaret had just moved to our school from Florida, and she had the 64-pack, a genuine source of wonder to us Pike County kids. Of course Margaret only used about eight colors, but she made a big deal of displaying all 64. Mrs. Brim gave us the standard admonition about staying inside the lines, so one day in fit of rebellion I colored every space on the page that wasn’t inside the lines. She looked at my finished paper, patted me on the head, smiled and said, “I should have expected that, Kenny.” Now that lady knew how to relieve stress.

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