These books first came out to induce submission in children.
I must confess that I have adult coloring books. And that really does feel like a confession to me. Isn’t coloring the stuff of children? I’m slightly embarrassed by this activity, but I find it very comforting at the same time.
In a world that feels increasingly out of control, coloring is wonderfully predictable. There are established boundaries. And while these boundaries do exist, I still get to choose how pretty to make the spaces within them. It’s my way of feeling creative without actually expending too much mental energy on it. I can get lost in the patterns and set my anxieties aside for a brief, colorful moment.
So when I came across an article entitled, “The Dark, Forgotten History of Coloring Books”, I didn’t want to read it. I didn’t want my multicolored bubble to be burst in any way. But, as is so often the case, curiosity got the better of me.
It seems that coloring books first came out as a way to induce submission in children. They were used to teach them how to behave. It’s part of the reason so many of us are loathe to color outside of the lines. Them’s the rules, after all.
The first coloring book was called The Little Folks Painting book. You can see it here. It includes lessons which are really warnings about not being disobedient. Don’t play tricks on people. Don’t be selfish. Don’t oversleep. According to the article, one of the lessons is,
“Never be discontented, never wish for anything you cannot have.”
Well, now, isn’t that creepy? By coloring, we’re being compliant. We’re being contained. We’re learning to accept the things we cannot control. By killing time in this way, we’re also not being trouble-makers. And John Lewis reminded us how important it is to make good trouble.
Even more chillingly, the article says,
“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… 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.”
Shades of 1984.
So will I stop coloring? Probably not. Sometimes you just need to shut off your brain. But it’s crucial to remember to turn it back on.
Maybe I’ll have to come up with even more ways to make these designs my own, besides simply choosing which colors go where. Perhaps I’ll use the designs as wrapping paper for a gift. Or maybe I’ll fold them into Christmas ornaments. Maybe I’ll take the author’s suggestion and tear them up and make a collage. Or I’ll create a tattoo.
I’ve always been rather noncompliant. I don’t suspect that will change any time soon. I do believe in certain rules and regulations, simply in order to live without chaos. But I hate the idea of being manipulated in any way. So yeah, I’m apt to color outside the lines of life.
But every once in a while, it’s nice to let others make the choices for you, if only on the page of a coloring book. As with any habit, though, moderation is key. I don’t want to turn into a Stepford colorer. That would not be good.
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