In a piece originally titled “There’s A Sinister Reason Coloring Books Are So Popular In Quarantine,” a professor who teaches the history of art, ideas, and technology at Stanford University and also writes for The Guardian and Vogue posits a unique take: “What if the recent popularity of coloring books comes not from the creativity they purportedly inspire, but from the submission they induce?”
In the piece, later retitled “The Dark, Forgotten History of Coloring Books,” Emanuele Lugli asserts, “This, after all, has been their mission from the start. It may be lost to the fans of coloring books that their success peaked in the 19th century, when such publications taught children how to behave. And obedience seems to be what many of us crave in these pandemic days.”
Noting that the “The Little Folks Painting Book—often described as the first coloring book,” which depicts in its last story “a brother and sister who wish to fly away from their boring, secluded life and are magically held captive on flying carpets that take them on a journey that never ends, a Dantesque hell of punishment,” Lugli asks, “Doesn’t this sum up what coloring books are about: Stay within the lines?”
“To color is to inhabit a world designed by others, to dwell in an environment where you are left with no options but to memorize what is already there,” Lugli opines. “But I am in no need to be reminded of what a small, limited life feels like: I live it and am tired of it. I am even more tired of the tamed fantasies that coloring books want me to make my own. They are mostly consolatory, rather than empowering.”
He concludes, “After days of coloring these diminutive dreams, I came to see the energy I spent on it as dimming my capacity to imagine how a future can be conceived and built. So I deleted my app. And if in these days of stillness and isolation you are offered a coloring book, my suggestion is: Rip it up and reassemble its fragments as a collage. That is the true artistic outlet for those who do not want to accept the world as it is but want to make it wildly anew without depleting its resources.”
In 2016, in honor of a campuswide “Healthy Campus Week,” the American University Student Health Center & Wellness Center provided coloring sheets for students to color. The counseling center urged students on its Facebook page to color with a nature theme, “because, in case you didn’t know, nature can have many healing powers, too.”
“Data released in January from Nielsen BookScan, which covers approximately 85% of the US print book market, shows the coloring craze has grown massively. US sales have shot up from 1 million to 12 million books in the past year,” Quartz reported in March 2016.