The Peter Pan effect: how returning to childhood pursuits can help us be better adults

Crayola memories? Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Crayola memories? Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Crayola memories?
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Predicting what trends in books will arise is always a bit like picking numbers for the lottery and recent book sales prove as unlikely as ever.

On Amazon’s list of the best selling books of 2015 there are not one but five colouring books for adults in the top 20. Four of them are in the top 10 and one, Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom: A Colouring Book Adventure is the number one bestseller, surpassing the sales of books by Harper Lee, Mary Berry and (thankfully) E L James.

For perhaps an even more surprising trend, take a look at this week’s Sunday Times Best Seller List: the top seven best-selling nonfiction hardbacks all feature on their covers a familiar Ladybird logo that cannot fail to induce nostalgia in British hearts. These Ladybird Books for Adults, a series of parodies of the traditional children’s books, poke fun at modern life through language and idealised (often bizarrely so) illustrations of the original Ladybird books

What these two strange publishing phenomena have in common is the way they challenge us to rekindle simple childhood joys. But why do we seem to be looking back to our childhoods for our entertainment? And could these childish entertainments ever be more than facile fun?


As with most crazes, it is difficult to trace where the popularity of colouring books for adults arose. In fact, this fad is nothing new. In 1962, writer-publisher duo Alex Roman and Jackie Kannon published the JFK Colouring Book, which sold 2.5 million copies and featured inflammatory political satire. More recently, in 2012 comedians Ryan Hunter and Taige Jensen launched an online version of Coloring for Grown-Ups, which they published as a physical book later the same year. In April 1015, colouring books for adults returned to the best-sellers lists and have remained there since.

Today the choices of colouring books are more extensive than ever, with Amazon now offering over 4,000 results for the search ‘colouring books for adults.’ Franchises have cashed in, with official Harry Potter and Game of Thrones colouring books topping charts. There seems to be a colouring book catering to every interest, from dogs and cats to geometric patterns to – for the more subversive among you, who may wish to colour in ornate typography – the Sweary Colouring Book by Sarah Bigwood, which can be bought off her Kickstarter page. There are even apps for those who want to colour on their way to work without eliciting the stares of fellow commuters when one brings out colouring pencils.


A closer look at the titles of adult colouring books presents another trend, adding the phrases ‘mindfulness,’ ‘anti-stress,’ and ‘art therapy’ to the mix.  One claims ‘anti-stress art theraphy for busy people’ and promises to ‘soothe anxiety and eliminate stress’ by ‘colour[ing] your way to peace and calm.’

Such claims even extend beyond colouring books. For Christmas, I was given Anti-stress Dot-to-Dot by Emily Wallis. Each picture is made up of 400 dots to connect and creates anything from cityscapes to animal portraits to a Monet-esque woman holding a parasol. The completed drawings, which can be individualised depending on the type of lines that you use to connect the dots, can then be coloured in or left as stylised sketches.

Now, as a self-confessed neurotic at the best of times, I was sceptical of the stress-busting properties of a dot-to-dot. Indeed, during my first attempt I even managed to find frustrations in the challenges of looking for lost numbers or connecting 148 to 249 not 149 because they were nearby. And if you were to have overheard the grunts of my friend’s first attempt you might have thought she was wrestling with a fiendish Sudoku, rather than a portrait of a tabby.

But after at last finishing the first, I found there is something addictive about the repetitive searching for the next number. Moreover, for those of us who find the suggestion to ‘just switch off your mind’ infuriating, such a simple and productive exercise can wind down an exhausted brain without taking up much time or requiring any creative talent.

As for mindfulness, it does not seem outrageous that these simple exercises could help focus us on the moment. Experts recommend a hugely disparate range of activities for promoting mindfulness, ranging from eating with no distractions, to meditation to origami. What all these practices have in common is the way they focus just enough attention to keep the mind from wandering, letting one relax and still stay present. Most importantly, mindfulness varies from person to person. While some find peace in silent retreats or three-hour meditations, these colouring books offer a much more accessible and less time-consuming alternative for personal time during our busy lives.


Those who want to learn more about mindfulness should check out the The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris. Although be warned, unlike my well-loved informative copy of the Florence Nightingale Ladybird Book passed down to me from my mother, this is a sharp-tongued but very funny little book of satire.

First announced by Penguin in October, the series of Ladybird Books for Adults features titles such as How it Works: The Husband, The Ladybird Book of the Hipster and even The Ladybird Book of the Hangover. The unlikely combination of the nostalgic design (the books exclusively use illustrations from the original Ladybird children’s books) and tongue-in-cheek observations about modern life has proved wildly popular, selling 600,000 copies in its first two months, despite Penguin only anticipating sales in the region of 15,000 copies per book.

Yet their appeal should not be surprising. Not only are they laugh-out-loud funny, with just the right amount of crude comedy, but they also give us a way to see our lives through the lens of the children we used to be. Reminding us of that childhood perspective, absurd and joyful as it was, can only add to the catharsis of their unique humour.


Colouring books for adults are also beginning to feature on a very different kind of list, having just been named one of 25 trends we will think are stupid in 20 years. But until these childhood activities reimagined for adults join the ranks of Flappy Bird, Neknominations and FarmVille, where is the harm in letting them take us back to those simpler, carefree times?


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