Three of Amazon’s top 10 bestselling books of 2015 were coloring books for grown-ups. Together, Johanna Basford's Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest coloring books have sold more than 13 million copies worldwide. It's not the first time adult coloring books have captured the nation's attention. In 1962, sales of adult coloring books reached $1 million, topping the New York Times bestseller list and inspiring Barbra Streisand to release a song titled "My Coloring Book."
But while today’s coloring books are marketed as therapeutic outlets for creativity, the coloring books of the 1960s were decidedly more subversive. New Republic associate editor Laura Marsh talks with Brooke about her deep dive into the political history of adult coloring books.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Three of Amazon’s top ten bestselling books of 2015 were coloring books. The Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest coloring books, produced by Johanna Basford, have together sold more than 13 million copies worldwide. A new trend? Nope.
[BARBRA STRISAND SINGING “MY COLORING BOOK”/UP & UNDER]
In the Kennedy era, adult coloring books were chart toppers. Barbra Streisand’s 1962 hit, “My Coloring Book” riffs on the fact that sales of adult coloring books reached 1 million in 1962.
[CLIP/BARBRA STRISAND SINGING]:
This is the heart that thought
He would always be true
Color it blue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But where today’s coloring books are marketed as therapeutic stress-relieving creativity engines, the coloring books of the ‘60s were decidedly more subversive. Laura Marsh filled in the details recently in The New Republic. Welcome to the show.
LAURA MARSH: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I have before me what I think is a fairly typical contemporary offering. This was given to Mythili, the segment’s producer, for Christmas. It’s called Finding Peace and it’s, it's full of swirls and flowers and birds and aphorisms. Just flip to any page and read the aphorism. [LAUGHS]
LAURA MARSH: Yeah, this one looks very relaxing.
It says, sometimes you can find peace of mind by transferring yourself to different situations. They just remind us to stay calm.
And that has a really lovely picture of a bird –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm –
LAURA MARSH: - flying through a rainstorm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm! So what made the ‘60s coloring books so subversive?
LAURA MARSH: Well, most of these books took on subjects that people were starting to criticize very vocally in the ‘60s and question, so corporate culture, the military, the government, sex, the hipster lifestyle. There wasn't really anything that you associate with the ‘60s that someone didn't make up a kind of satirical coloring book about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where did the idea come from?
LAURA MARSH: So the first coloring book came out at the end of 1961, and it was a joke between two copyrighters at a Chicago ad firm. Like any good disgruntled employees, they were thinking up the most creative ways to make fun of their bosses and their jobs.
So they made up this book called the Executive Coloring Book.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
LAURA MARSH: And this book had pictures of an ad guy going through the stages of his day, like, this is what Daddy does when he goes to walk. For the first panel, he's in his boxers putting on his suit and he says, this is my suit, color it gray or I’ll lose my job.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] That was the first one.
LAURA MARSH: That was the first one. It was a huge hit. The first printing sold out in the first month, and people started copying it in Chicago and New York and there were like cottage industry operations out of Dallas. I think that’s where the John Birch Society Coloring Book was made.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. That wasn't produced, I assume, by the John Birch Society? [LAUGHS]
LAURA MARSH: No, it was – it was specifically for the purpose of making fun of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the JFK Coloring Book was a big one.
LAURA MARSH: That was probably the next breakout hit. It spent 14 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and it made fun of JFK.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, the target of these coloring books were people who regarded themselves as cool literati types?
LAURA MARSH: They were for young professional people who thought of themselves as a little bit outside the common stream. You know, we don't like bureaucracy, we don't like corporate culture but we probably still pick up a paycheck in some of those fields.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It commodified their dissent.
LAURA MARSH: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The question that isn’t answered in anything I've seen: Were the books colored?
LAURA MARSH: Well, the instructions in the books are often very metaphorical, so the Executive Coloring Book said, “Color me gray” but that was pretty unusual. Most often they would say, “Color it naïve” or “Color him stupid.”
Or like Barbra Streisand, “Color me lonely.” That’s not an indication to me that people were actually coloring.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm
LAURA MARSH: And probably more important is that sales of crayons didn't go up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] How long did the trend last?
LAURA MARSH: It was pretty much done by the time Barbra Streisand's record hit the airwaves. By 1963, I found newspaper articles where people were like, oh, thank God the coloring book trend’s over.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You postulate that one of the things that killed off the coloring book so abruptly in its first incarnation were the very people who created it, to begin with, Madison Avenue ad execs.
LAURA MARSH: Someone made a Madison Avenue Coloring Book making fun of Madison Avenue in a similar vein.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Making fun of themselves?
LAURA MARSH: Or for their bosses and their clients.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah.
LAURA MARSH: When it hit New York City, clients started to complain and they were basically told, if you do it again you're out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One thing I found fascinating was that even though the coloring book was starting to crash as a cultural phenomenon, somebody found a health application for it. You saw an August 1963 piece saying that doctors were finding coloring books were useful diagnostic tools.
LAURA MARSH: Yeah, I found that a worrying article.
There was a doctor who had made a 12-page booklet and he thought that he could diagnose basically any mental disorder by seeing how people colored in these squiggles. So it was like a Rorschach test but probably even less scientific.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m just liking the parallel that now we see them as healthful and back then they were political, mostly.
LAURA MARSH: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now they’re mostly healthful but they’re also somewhat political. I saw two Trump books. One is called the Trump Off-Color Coloring Book. There's also a Hillary Coloring Book, which makes her look kind of witchy, and there's a Ted Cruz Coloring Book. These are much blunter instruments and, and not terribly funny.
LAURA MARSH: I think they’re just less unexpected.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
LAURA MARSH: I think we live in a culture now where making fun of people who are in power is a pretty normal thing to do. And in the ‘60s, this was a completely new form of making fun of people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The ones that are used therapeutically today, the very best ones truly are beautiful. So, it relieves stress?
LAURA MARSH: It's a pretty relaxing thing for people to do at home. That was a really big contrast with the ‘60s because coloring now is about kind of getting away from it all, forgetting how terrible things might be or just how boring, mundane, rather than criticizing them and trying to do something about them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hachette Book Group is releasing a new series of books for adults, Connect the Dots. [LAUGHS]
LAURA MARSH: [LAUGHS] I don’t think that has the same appeal. No one liked connecting the dots as a kid.
I’ve never met a child who is like, oh, I just need to get back to my dot connecting here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Thank you so much.
LAURA MARSH: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Laura Marsh is a story editor at The New Republic.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the novelization of movies is an underappreciated art form, say its practitioners.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.