Little, Brown and Company
Isabella Biedenharn
May 20, 2015 AT 12:00 PM EDT

While browsing Amazon’s bestseller list, you might have noticed something out of the ordinary: Seven of the books in the top 20 are coloring books. Adult coloring books, far removed from the ones you scribbled in as a child. Billed as stress-relief tools, they’re gorgeous and sophisticated—you’ll find intricate gardens, labyrinthine cityscapes, mandalas, and patterned woodland critters.

That the books are selling so briskly does not surprise art therapist Linda Turner, who finds that “adults feel like they don’t have permission to be creative.” But coloring books, she says, help us explore a healthy form of regression. Turner sees a direct connection between these books and the wine-and-painting parties across the country, where everyone paints the same image. Tapping into stale creative reserves is important—and something that hasn’t always been appreciated. “In terms of our artistic and creative abilities, we grow until we’re 11 or 12 years old,” she says. “And then, unless you keep going with it, you stop. In American society, we don’t really have a focus on the arts.” But through coloring—being present in a meditative way—that childlike inventiveness can return.

Another benefit? As Rosie Goodwin, the co-illustrator of Splendid Cities (out June 9) puts it, you’re just better at it now. “As a child, you’re always messing up the page; you can’t fill in the shapes. As an adult, you can get it right and enjoy the lovely, immersive experience.”

Coloring books might also be a reaction to a screen-weary culture, hungry for a tactile experience. “At the end of a long day at the computer, you can feel quite beaten up,” says Alice Chadwick, Goodwin’s co-illustrator. “People really deeply need to do something that has a creative circuit in it, so you’re not just putting energy in and feeling exhausted. Something’s coming back that pleases you and gives you kind of a buzz.”

That buzz is very real. “When you’re completing something in a structured way, you feel gratified, and that raises your serotonin levels,” says Turner. The latest coloring books take the experience a step further by having users complete the drawings. Little, Brown’s Carina Guiterman explains, “They have flowers, but you add petals and other details. You make your own art.”

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