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The Story at the Point of a Crayon: Outlines for the Comparative and Historical Study of Narrative in Colouring Books

L’histoire au point du crayon : contours pour l’étude comparative et historique du récit dans les livres de coloriage
Andrei Kostin

Résumés

A‑t‑on besoin d’une narration pour le coloriage ? Une série de cas historiques et contemporains démontre qu’il existe une tendance à utiliser le storytelling dans la conception des livres de coloriage, une pratique commune aux traditions européennes, voire européanisées, malgré des différences historiquement, géographiquement et culturellement distinctes. En même temps, des preuves provenant de différentes sources (stratégies commerciales des auteurs et éditeurs, commentaires des utilisateurs de commerce électronique, une collection de livres de coloriage coloriés des années 1960, des recherches expérimentales récentes) prouvent que la narration est globalement étrangère à la pratique interactive du coloriage, malgré son efficacité dans quelques cas de book design très élaborés. Il semble que la coexistence de ces deux réalités puisse s’expliquer par la dichotomie hiérarchique toujours présente de descriptio/narratio et son application dans la production imprimée. Tendant à produire davantage du narratif que d’autres formes, les artistes et les éditeurs de livres de coloriage utilisent le récit à la recherche de l’auto-valorisation ou du profit. On peut émettre l’hypothèse que les conceptions basées sur la construction de l’expérience interactive (qui peut être narrative ou non) et non sur l’histoire ou l’image (qui peut être figurative ou non) sont plus efficaces tant du point de vue de la réponse des lecteurs que sur le plan du marché.

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  • 1 This pertains to the notion of a professional colour artist as mentioned in the title pages of comi (...)
  • 2 I would like to thank Elise Hjalmarson, Varvara Kostina, Alexei Evstratov, the anonymous reviewers (...)
  • 3 The phenomenon was seen as a surprise, producing a wave of mentions in media. Here is a selection o (...)
  • 4 Conversely, “mandalas for colouring”, a genre of the colouring book hitting the European(ized) mark (...)

1It may be true that not everybody knows how to colour,1 but almost everybody, at least in the Europeanized world, has experience with a specific medium of colouring: colouring books or colouring sheets.2 This statement might have been incorrect a century or more ago. However, since then, the combined forces of cheap printing, affordable crayons, pedagogical theories and practices, the world of advertising and merchandising, and the uncertain career paths of people with some education in the arts have made the emergence of a new creative practice possible. At least since the 1960s, innumerable colouring books have been published in immense print runs throughout Europe and the United States, becoming a part of children’s everyday life to such an extent that when “colouring books for adults” became a trend in the early 2010s,3 they had to be labelled as such—“colouring book” being almost synonymous with “children’s colouring books”.4

  • 5 It is a rather broad area worth special discussion. The earliest reference I’ve encountered regardi (...)
  • 6 For notable exceptions, see: Angilery (1994), Ford Smith (2010), Goatley (2011).

2Quite unexpectedly, despite their omnipresence (or due precisely to their omnipresence) this medium was almost entirely outside of/peripheral to scholarly interest before the adult colouring books boom of the 2010s. Research encompassed examinations of colouring books as therapeutic tools,5 of gender patterns within colouring books (Kessler Rachlin & Vogt, 1974; McPherson, 2008; Fitzpatrick & McPherson, 2010; Pausé, 2017), with sporadic utilization of colouring in pedagogical and psychological testing (King, 1991). However, overall, what was written about the phenomenon of colouring books as a medium came from outside the academic world:6 from book collectors, curators, writers, artists, and art critics (Filimonova, 1970; Zillner, 1992; Drawn to art, 2003; Georgel, 1988; Valotteau, 2017, 2018). This is not the place to delve into the history and causes of this silence, nor to explore the peculiarities of academic studies on adult colouring books upon their emergence as a significant market. Nevertheless, what I will address here is connected to both topics. I would prefer to pose a single question, which seems to me crucial for the field, allowing us to better understand the basic mechanics of colouring books and opening the door for their comparative study:

Does colouring require a narrative?

3As a child growing up in the second-largest Soviet city in the late Soviet era (I was 13 when the USSR collapsed), I was well accustomed to the concept of a colouring book. These booklets, typically in Letter/A4 format, contained 16 pages in a paperback cover, featuring a story that unfolded from the first spread to the last. The images were outlined with clear black lines, designed to but not necessarily expected to be coloured in. Alongside millions of children around me, I didn’t require printed instructions (often absent from publishers) for these “colouring albums”. We instinctively knew how to engage with them: we would gaze at the pictures, read the story, and colour the spaces we deemed worth the effort or within our capability.

4By the 1980s, Soviet colouring books were produced in massive print runs, ranging from 150,000 to 2,000,000 copies, and exhibited considerable variety (at least 150 titles per year). These were predominantly published by two main publishers: the Moscow-based Malysh (“Toddler”), which held a virtual monopoly in interactive printed games and books for young children with over 70% of the market share, and “Sovetskij khudozhnik” (“Soviet artist”), located in Leningrad, serving as the publisher for the state-sponsored monopolist union of professional artists and capturing 10 to 20% of the market. Although there were some disparities between booklets from these publishers (the Leningrad one leaned towards intricate images with finer details and thicker paper covers, while Moscow editions often had an overt educational focus), they shared a common approach to the medium: a “typical” colouring book was a booklet with text, telling a story. While there was still a substantial number of titles offering only images for colouring without accompanying text, these were considered “sub-standard” or “not quite colouring books”.

5I was not in the appropriate age range to experience Russian colouring books of the first post-Soviet decade, the 1990s. However, as my daughters grew up, since the early 2000s, what I saw them colour was notably different. My colouring books had been, as mentioned earlier, more akin to “books”, whereas my daughters often engaged with individual sheets. I had read and coloured in the privacy of my parents’ or grandparents’ apartments or vacation homes when adults were absent or occupied with their own lives. In contrast, my daughters predominantly coloured in public spaces such as cafes, waiting rooms, or airplanes, while adults continued with their routines. Even if they did come across colouring books, these volumes lacked cohesive narratives; instead, they consisted of isolated images that adults had deemed suitable for children, often featuring characters from movies rather than books. This divergent experience didn’t sway my perception of a “normal” colouring book—if my children were engaged in something “non‑standard”, it did not imply a change in the norm, right? It was only when I began studying colouring books and simultaneously left my country of origin that I realized my error.

  • 7 In addition, Italian colouring books tend to be ABC-books more frequently and also more often promo (...)

6One doesn’t need to endure a life of significant political and military shifts to realize that distinct “norms” exist concerning storytelling within colouring books. Nowadays, a short trip over the Alps—for instance, from Grenoble (France) to Milan (Italy)—and a visit to major bookstores or museum gift/book shops can make this evident. While the designs featuring “copy the colours of the original” or “add colours to this collection of loosely related separate images” (often with a significant presence of Disney-themed albums) are predominant in both locations, the approach to storytelling differs markedly. It is nearly impossible to locate a colouring book organized around a narrative in Arnaud or French museums, whereas such books are substantially present in Italian museums and Feltrinelli.7

7Consequently, the overarching attitude towards text and narration may serve as a significant metric for comparing diverse local and historical traditions of colouring books. I argue that this attitude is crucial for comprehending the medium, as well as the broader realm of “interactive” books. To illustrate this, I will explore several representative (though not exhaustive) instances of the interplay between colouring and narration in diverse temporal and geographical contexts, assessing their effectiveness in both engaging audiences and capturing market attention. Ultimately, I will challenge the longstanding rhetorical dichotomy between descriptio and narratio, probing its significance within the realm of interactive media.

Colouring books and where to find them

  • 8 Colouring books can certainly be regarded as an individual case of ephemera, with educational backg (...)

8It is not easy to determine when colouring books as we know them came into being, how they developed, or what they are now. As other ephemera generally, they are still not something well registered, stored, and catalogued.8 If you want to puzzle the librarian of a prominent national library, inquire about the accessibility of this specific medium within their institution. I have seen those faces several times; some of them tried to give advice; barely one was really useful. Even during the late Soviet Union era, marked by its highly centralized printing industry and comprehensive protocols for registering and storing nearly all published works, colouring books managed to evade registration and storage.

  • 9 Carine Devillon offers an intriguing overview of the tradition of the colouring books in Korea whic (...)

9National registries encompass a total of 747 titles published in Russian between 1950 and 1970 (including bilingual editions). These titles were dispatched by publishers to two central state libraries (The Lenin State Library, GBL, in Moscow and The State Public Library, GPB, in Leningrad) and are still housed there. However, only a fraction of these titles (specifically, the “albums for colouring with text”—akin to what I previously referred to as “colouring book organized around a narrative”) are documented in library catalogues. This is due to their inclusion in the weekly series “Chronicle of Book Issues in the USSR”, which focused on registering Soviet “books proper” and was a vital source for the highly valuable I. I. Startsev’s multi-volume bibliography of Soviet print for children [Startsev et al., 1933–1989; Maslinsky, 2022]. “Books proper” couldn’t elude the notice of library catalogues or bibliographers, ensuring their visibility. If we were to gauge the Soviet repertoire of colouring books based on these catalogues, we would erroneously conclude that there were minimal Soviet colouring books prior to the late 1950s, and that they were exclusively of the “albums for colouring with text” variety. This, however, doesn’t reflect the reality.9 The predominant form of Soviet colouring books during those decades were “albums for colouring” proper—devoid of accompanying text. These were historically produced by lithographers and registered in a separate official series titled Chronicle of Image Prints in the USSR. Titles mentioned in the latter one were ascribed to, and are still maintained within, specialized Départements des étampes—stored without catalogue entries, arranged in voluminous stacks intermixed with other types of prints, and ordered chronologically. Based on my experience, no colouring books in these collections have eluded mention in the Chronicles, and the ones mentioned are relatively well-preserved (though not devoid of minor lacunae).

10I embarked on this extended detour to emphasize that late Soviet colouring books were, and continue to be, exceptionally well-documented and preserved—perhaps more so than at any other point in history. Anyway, after almost two years of compiling the database on Soviet colouring books from the 1950s and 1960s, based on items circulating in the active antiquarian market, I can confidently assert that at least 15% of the colouring books published in the Soviet Union never made their way into the Chronicles. Conversely, some items listed therein still elude the central collections—and these are predominantly titles from influential monopolistic central publishers, not from minor rural workshops.

  • 10 For example, since the mid‑1960s there were almost no Soviet colouring books based on images from p (...)
  • 11 Refer to the most comprehensive description of a colouring book collection so far: Zillner (1992). (...)

11A distinctive feature of late-Soviet colouring books is worth highlighting here. In almost every time and place where colouring books were utilized, they were actively employed as advertising tools—even within socialist countries of Central Europe. However, in the late Soviet Union, where private business was criminalized and pricing was standardized across the entire nation, with nearly all production and trade being state-controlled, advertising was remarkably scarce and absent from colouring books.10 Given that advertising print is generally less preserved than books (including colouring books), it’s reasonable to assume that any pursuit of a “complete” collection or catalogue of colouring books in a capitalist tradition is inherently doomed to incompleteness. Even extensive and wealthy collections, like those of Fonds Heure joyeuse in Paris or private collectors dedicated to this field,11 inevitably exhibit biases and disproportionately represent certain segments of colouring book history.

12The study of colouring books, with their liminal position between the book proper and the blank form (or an aid for art education or leisure/relaxation), can render the deprivation of agency in children and readers/consumers generally clearer as well as provide ways of studying print media from the perspective of the reader/viewer/listener/colourer, not the producer. To do this, colouring books should be studied not solely as untouched blanks preserved in libraries—as in any other blank form, the structure and logic provided by the editors can always be denied or contested. To study colouring books, one should not only question how the colouring was structured or prescribed, but also how actual users coloured or refused to colour.

  • 12 I primarily utilized two Russian platforms for online book auctions, Meshok (<meshok.net) and “Al (...)

13Every history of colouring books remains inherently incomplete, fragmented, and biased by the available sources—one should always keep this in mind. The set of books studied here was compiled as a result of an interconnected series of bibliographic quests.12 It is inevitably influenced by search criteria, research inquiries, and the capabilities of the utilized tools and data. Nonetheless, I find my findings worth discussion.

What kind of art does a colouring book teach, if any?

  • 13 The existing literature on the history of colouring books is limited. In addition to the titles pre (...)
  • 14 The first two examples are drawn from a concise but currently unique study into the pre-history of (...)
  • 15 Based on the records from the General Catalog of the American Antiquarian Society, which occasional (...)

14Unravelling the early history of European colouring books reveals a notable intertwining with the evolution of youth education.13 This connection can be traced through educational instructions of the early 17th century, which encouraged drawing and colouring maps to enhance geographical understanding. Or to mid‑18th century elementary art manuals. Or to the boom of kindergarten prints in the late 19th century.14 It was within the latter context that colouring books emerged as a distinct medium—purposefully designed for colouring, marketed, sold, and employed as colouring books. Undoubtedly, the central idea behind these booklets was to cultivate artists: “young painters” were prominently featured in album titles, depicted on their cover pages, and addressed within instructional matter.15 But was it the only art they taught?

15In a substantial collection of historical French colouring books digitized by Fonds Heure joyeuse for the Gallica digital library, the earliest entry with a verifiable date unmistakably imparts more than just artistry. It is a compilation of stories and poems by Eudoxie Dupuis illustrated by Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel, issued in 1883 to promote the children’s magazine St Nicolas as well as the aquarelles of la maison Lefranc publishing.

  • 16 It’s worth noting that in this artwork, the artist deliberately opts for crayons over the intended (...)

Image 1. – Unknown artist, Colouring of L.‑M. Boutet de Monvel’s illustration to E. Dupuis’ poem Printemps in St Nicolas (1883).16

Image 1. – Unknown artist, Colouring of L.‑M. Boutet de Monvel’s illustration to E. Dupuis’ poem Printemps in St Nicolas (1883).16

Fonds Heure joyeuse, Médiathèque Françoise Sagan, Paris.
Source: <gallica.bnf.fr> / BnF.

  • 17 The book was designed for children but was in fact also coloured at least by young adults. The comp (...)
  • 18 The entire concept of the St Nicolas colouring competition closely mirrored a series of steps that (...)

16Beyond merely reading (which involved revisiting selections from the magazine’s prior years that covered topics like nature, history, social inequity, and moral values), children had to be accustomed to the practice of charity. The coloured books they submitted for a competition were not returned (St Nicolas, 1884: 110); instead, they were intended as gifts from “enfants riches et heureux” to “des pauvres petits êtres qui n’ont pas de famille et qui mourraient de faim et de misère s’il n’existait pas des établissements charitables”.17 The quality of colouring art played second fiddle to this objective. The book’s preface inspired the colourists: “Les moins réussis de vos coloriages trouveront des admirateurs, et ceux qui les recevront béniront et remercieront du fond du cœur leurs frères en St Nicolas qui leur auront procuré cette joie”. It was much more an art of being a good bourgeois this book taught than anything else.18

17But what constitutes a good bourgeois? Among its attributes is being “sage”, well-behaved. The creators and consumers of early colouring books might have been performing the game of art education, yet it is not clear whether there was more hope and tenderness or fear and disgust as they regarded children. An enthusiastic review of the first colouring book that garnered critical acclaim, The Little Folks Painting Book (1878), described it as “a most admirable method of at once cultivating taste and keeping hands out of mischief… revealing a first-rate way of setting the active little wits of the children to work” (Lakeside, 1880: 143). This phrase encapsulates the sentiment: children possess active minds, but their activity is deemed perilous and prone to mischievousness. To avert potentially dire outcomes, children must be loaded with a substantial manual workload—branded as the “cultivation of taste” to pre‑empt potential resistance. Thus, “the most innocent of all art forms” is born—the notion underlying most (even if few) interventions into the medium of colouring books by highbrow art, utilizing the juxtaposition of this invented (perceived, prescribed) innocence with “the most guilty of subjects” (Schwartz, 1998: 37).

  • 19 Compare this phrasing with a British critic praising A Painting Book by Kate Greenaway exactly for (...)

18While it may be comforting to think that we are past Victorian times, I would not be so sure we actually are. The earliest piece of substantive art critique concerning colouring books that I am aware of begins with this assertion: “Colouring book is not just a meaningless leisure; it is aimed not just at saving parents’ libraries from invasion of juvenile barbarians” (Filimonova, 1970: 31).19 I can finally furnish an example from a preface to a recent book in a series that justly secured a final short‑list mention at the esteemed BolognaRagazzi Award just a decade ago:

  • 20 Per le famiglie i musei sono ancora più problematici. I bambini hanno tempi di attenzione diversi. (...)

For families, museums are… problematic. Children have different attention spans. Soon the nine-year-old disappears around the corner! At the same time, the three-year-old decides to sit down on the floor and explore the space under the bench. Who knows where the rest of the family has gone? Before we panic, let’s regroup and catch our breath… This guide is intended to help families spend more time looking at the paintings in the museum and more importantly, see more in the paintings they regard. The guide provides suggestions for new ways of looking, tools for drawing, tips for writing, puzzles, stories and questions.20 (Bradburne, 2023)

  • 21 It is indeed revealing that just a few years ago Crockett Johnson had to answer to the criticism of (...)

19It seems that even in the best crafted, intricate, and artistic colouring books—and perhaps especially in this genre—creators still perceive children (though this time—as well as their parents) as somewhat uncivilized individuals necessitating taming through activities marketed now as the cultivation of the “new ways of looking”.21

Can a dead body tell a story?

20Within the cited passage, there is a word that merits particular attention—“tips for writing”. What do they do in a colouring book? Browsing through the pages yields no explicit instructions related to writing. Yet, two pages stand apart; they offer no elements to be coloured. Instead, they present two laconic depictions of lifeless bodies—Andrea Mantegna’s iconic Dead Christ (around 1480s) and Arturo Martini’s Ophelia (1934). Accompanying the images is a caption that informs the reader that while the depiction of complex subjects is challenging, rendering simple ones—such as raw emotions—is equally demanding. This construct commences with a query: “Can a lying, sleeping, or lifeless body tell a story?” It suggests that this spread (as well as some others) demands us to tell a story hidden by something seemingly incapable of speaking. Can you master that art?

Image 2. – “Can a lying, sleeping, or lifeless body tell a story?” (Sironi & Scarabottolo, 2023: 22–23).

Image 2. – “Can a lying, sleeping, or lifeless body tell a story?” (Sironi & Scarabottolo, 2023: 22–23).

A copy from a private collection. Photo A. Kostin.

21Here an innovative, contemporary colouring book meets the archaic past of the medium roots. As previously mentioned, early European(ized) colouring books were integral to the global kindergarten (Fröbelian) movement that burgeoned in the latter half of the 19th century. Friedrich Fröbel’s death in 1852 marked the onset of the spread of the Fröbel Societies—entities that propagated his concepts and designs. While interpretations of Fröbel’s ideas could vary, one theme remained central: Fröbel, a pupil of Pestalozzi, believed in the potential of a universally applicable educational method based on rational principles. His most influential creation, instrumental in fostering the kindergarten movement, was a twist on the phrase that nailed Pestalozzi’s efforts: “Vous voulez mécaniser l’éducation !” While Pestalozzi interpreted it in a physiological way, trying to adapt to the general and individual development of a child, Fröbel’s momentum created an educational industry founded on the mass production of easily replicable teaching tools and methods (centred around wooden rectangular blocks known as Fröbelgaben). According to the creator, his invention would engage children in extensive manual labour, leading to almost mystical self-discoveries encompassing self, world, and God. This industrial framework paved the way for the commercialization of infant and toddler education—as not only the “gifts” offered by Fröbel were easily replicable, but it was possible to include in education (i.e. offer to the market) any other easily replicable tools. Colouring book happily became one of them. Yet, as part of an industry, they inevitably encountered other educational tools stemming from the same workshops and sold through the same catalogues and stores.

  • 22 Authors of (Renonciat, 2011: 27) offer an example of a late 17th‑century Comenius’s Vestibulum, see (...)
  • 23 In France the standard genre name of these booklets was l’imagier (Renonciat, 2011: 72–75).

22The concept of visual education was ancient, with precedents found in works like Comenius’s Orbis Pictu or Rousseau-inspired Basedow’s Elementarwerk.22 From the outset, this practice was intrinsically linked to the development of language skills. By the late 19th century, the ancient rhetorical exercise of ekphrasis (using words to depict a non-existent image) transformed into pre- and early-school exercises that involved describing or narrating stories based on actual images. Series of these pictures were printed by artisans who also produced colouring books.23 It was a natural progression to merge these two forms of exercises.

  • 24 During the 1950s–70s, the genre marker “Colour and Tell” also gained prominence.

23By the 1880s, albums surfaced that would eventually be dubbed, starting in the 1890s, “colouris amusantes” in the French market. These were not just any images; they were encapsulated short stories (“funny” tales from a child’s daily life or, later, comical caricatures of child life; another variation were the stories with anthropomorphic animals as depicted protagonists). By the turn of the century, these transformed into serialized images within a single booklet, each conveying a story without words, accompanied only by a title. These were incredibly popular worldwide, exemplified by the series published in Paris by Monrocq Frères during the 1900s with titles in French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and very poor Russian. The genre marker of “funny/amusing pictures” was persistent. It endured in Soviet colouring books until the 1960s,24 becoming in 1957 the title of the highly successful post-World War II Soviet children’s magazine.

Images 3–5. – Albums from Monrocq Brothers’ Colouris amusants series, 1900’s.

Images 3–5. – Albums from Monrocq Brothers’ Colouris amusants series, 1900’s.

Source: <gallica.bnf.fr> / BnF.

  • 25 One can argue, that the whole 1880’s emergence of colouring books was due to narrative potential of (...)

24The extent to which the connection between colouring and storytelling was effective remains uncertain. Nonetheless, publishers exhibited creativity in devising interactive designs.25 They could, for example, print stories on the reverse side of colouring pages (the idea was for children to first colour, meticulously observing all aspects of the picture, then create their own story, and subsequently compare it to the pre-supplied narrative). Other techniques included leaving space on the title page for the author’s name, establishing subtle connections between distant pages containing discrete images, and more. This direct colouring-for-telling design persists to this day. For instance, consider buying a colouring book (just one recent example) centred around humanoid mushrooms that encourages crafting stories about their dreams and adventures.

  • 26 Vera Kiesewalter, Soviet artist of German ancestry. Around 1941 she had to move from Moscow to Udmu (...)

Images 6–7. – “What are these Mushlings dreaming about?” (Kay Norman, 2022); E. Bart. (?), Colouring of a page in Grozdova (1947) with an illustration by Vera Kiesewalter (?),26 1948.

Images 6–7. – “What are these Mushlings dreaming about?” (Kay Norman, 2022); E. Bart. (?), Colouring of a page in Grozdova (1947) with an illustration by Vera Kiesewalter (?),26 1948.

Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.

  • 27 Emma? Esther? Barteneva? Bartanian? Barskova? — her works are solely signed with initials.

25“What are these Mushlings dreaming about?” Perhaps something like the slightly surreal picture—look closely, really closely—completed in 1948 amidst the hyper-realistic art characteristic of the final years of Stalin’s era by a Soviet girl, E. Bar(t/s).27 The colourist decided to accompany the diligent colouring with her own imaginative art on the blank pages, signing and dating her own creations. The next page contains a female image titled “The Mad Woman N sings”, demonstrating non‑linear patterns of the stories born out of pictures for colouring. Or could E. Bart have been a boy (Erik? Eduard?)—who preferred drawing princesses to what was deemed socially appropriate for a boy? There are as many ways to tell stories as there are to colour.

26The most effective merging of “amusing pictures” and colouring at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries manifested in postcards designed for colouring. These postcards, sometimes not quite innocent and sometimes moralizing, were often sold in sets accompanied by colours, brushes, and instructions for colouring.

Image 8. – Some coloured 1910’s–1920’s postcards.

Image 8. – Some coloured 1910’s–1920’s postcards.
  • 28 In clockwise direction, starting with top-left one: 1) Jacquette to tante mimi in Marseille, 1929, (...)

Private collection. Photos: Andrei Kostin.28

  • 29 Instructions for these coloured postcards prohibited adults to help their children. In fact, in my (...)
  • 30 In my collection only four cards mention the previous (?) colouring; three of them—in German and Fr (...)

27Surviving copies of these postcards illustrate that they served as tools to foster family connections. While keeping contacts with relatives and neighbours, they also offered children an opportunity to practice calligraphy, orthography, and epistolary etiquette independently, and once the card was crafted, it provided some family entertainment.29 So far I have not found in messages written at the verso of those cards any mentions of stories depicted at the recto.30 It appears that the interactive response to the intricate designs uniting colouring and storytelling might be more complex than anticipated. Before delving deeper into these challenges, it’s prudent to furnish more substantiating evidence.

Some hazards of grafting stories to colouring books

  • 31 At his personal site Rosanes mentions his “11 illustrated books including The New York Times best‑s (...)

28Two artists epitomize the boom of adult colouring books in the past decade—Johanna Basford and Kerby Rosanes. Despite significant differences, there are common features in their art. Both employ large, nearly square formats (the standard for the entire movement) for their voluminous colouring books, providing users with thousands of precise details in each spread. These intricate elements come together to create fantastical images that can captivate a viewer, drawing them into a vortex. Both artists also at some stage incorporated quests for tiny details in their books. Their distinctive styles and colouring books have achieved popularity, with regular publications, translations into numerous international and local languages, and dedicated fan bases.31 Of the top 10 colouring book artists who marked the adult colouring book of 2015 (Tivnan, 2016) they are the only two (alongside Millie Marotta) still active with the medium.

29There is another feature common to their works that is not immediately obvious, yet it proves to be important for the topic at hand. At some point, both artists endeavoured to incorporate verbal narratives into their colouring books. For Basford, this occurred with Ivy and the Inky Butterfly (2017), while for Rosanes, it was his most recent release, Alien Worlds, issued in March 2023. The narratives within these two books vary significantly. In Basford’s case, she presents an Alice-like tale featuring a young girl’s enchanting discovery of a magical butterfly within her grandfather’s studio. This experience leads her on a journey to an alternate world and eventually back again. Basford’s signature artistic style, cute and intricately detailed, beautifully accompanies this narrative. Conversely, Rosanes takes a different approach by incorporating discrete descriptive logs that detail an astronaut’s voyages to distant planets. These logs are found in the concluding pages, and they transform his detailed illustrations into captivating glimpses of unexplored cosmic realms.

30Concise explanations for the book’s images in its final pages are generally a distinctive feature of the “Worlds” series by Rosanes. This device developed gradually. While Fragile World (2021) provides just dictionary-like descriptions of endangered species, Mythic World (2022) goes on to include unconnected synopses of various myths depicted in the book. Finally, Alien Worlds takes a unique approach, crafting a narrative framework that effectively ties all the images into a cohesive story despite their individuality. Underlining this distinctive feature, a caption on the artist’s website declares that the book “follows the journey of an intrepid astronaut as he travels the furthest cosmos to discover different alien worlds”.

31Despite the differences in narrative techniques, both Basford’s and Rosanes’s takes on the “long” verbal storytelling share a common aspect: a lukewarm audience reaction. Alien Worlds, despite garnering overall positive reviews, emerged among the lowest-rated book by Rosanes on Amazon (with an overall rating of 4.5). Out of 89 reviews, only five mention the logbook appendix: three merely as a minor side factor, one as a tool for colour selection, and only one applauds the classic sci‑fi suspense generated by the interplay between text and images. It appears that hardly anyone noticed the underlying story presented by the author (though this doesn’t imply that reviewers were not eager to delve into the narratives suggested by the non‑verbal imagery).

  • 32 The most common of them—the book is regarded as a “heirloom” which is to be illuminated as a mediev (...)

32The reception of Ivy was different—it maintains an overall rating of 4.8 with hundreds of reviews. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that one thing sparked controversy about this book, it was precisely the narrative. Even within the realm of 5‑star reviews, there are frequent mentions of the story as a drawback (nearly half of the 5‑star reviews that touch on the story find some form of excuse for it).32 As we delve into 1 to 4‑star reviews, a unanimous consensus emerges: the story detracts from the (adult) colouring book experience. Two citations succinctly summarize this sentiment. “Do not care for stories in my colouring books” (Richard, 1 star, 23 Apr. 2021). And a more elaborated one:

This one is not my favorite. I’m not into the storybook theme, it takes up too much of the book … I feel like she wasted so much space with the story thing. I can see the appeal of the storybook, if you’re someone who was planning a masterpiece as a keepsake. But I would have liked to maybe see her make a storybook version and a regular version. Johanna, we love your books, but we buy them because we want to colour! (eZmoney, 5 stars, 12 Oct. 2017)

  • 33 It seems that Kerby Rosanes’s “Worlds” series is also discontinued: his announced 2024 major editio (...)
  • 34 The series opened in April with Les malheurs de Sophie by Comtesse de Ségur illustrated by Soba wit (...)
  • 35 Yann Autret, who was publishing under the pseudonym Fañch at the time, authored his sole colouring (...)

33It’s no wonder that Johanna Basford never revisited her experiment with story colouring books.33 Neither does it come as a surprise that an ambitious series, Les classiques à colorier by successful French publisher Hachette, appearing in the spring 2016—their own production of two classical 19th-century stories for the adolescent public illustrated by experienced art-therapy colouring book artists (unlike in numerous Disney-themed albums by the same publisher)—was never continued.34 It’s also understandable why other popular colouring book artists who transition to publishing stories (such as Millie Marotta, Emma Farrarons or Richard Merritt) opt for conventional full-colour storybooks.35

Images 9–11. – Lena L., Colouring of (Comtesse de Ségur, 2016), fragments (around 2017).

Images 9–11. – Lena L., Colouring of (Comtesse de Ségur, 2016), fragments (around 2017).
  • 36 Colourist (around 10 years old at that time) does not remember the experience of colouring the book (...)

Private collection.36

  • 37 Inferiority of the quality of children’s colouring books compared to their adult counterparts is a (...)

34As you scroll through the reviews of Ivy and the Inky Butterfly, a particular insight into youth reading emerges. There are adults who enjoy high-quality adult colouring books and engage with quality adult literature. And there are children who are content to read and colour whatever is provided to them by adults. Following comments underscore this notion: “Thought I was buying an adult colouring book… This is very disappointing, I wasn’t expecting it to be so much print & so little colouring” (Nancy Ansel, 2 stars, 11 Oct. 2017); “Won’t win any literary awards, but I would have loved it as a child, and it’s a very nice vehicle for the pictures” (Macrina, 4 stars, 12 Oct. 2017); “I wasn’t able to read the whole story, from what I read you will enjoy reading it to the little [ones]” (Sabrina Bradley, 5 stars, 11 Oct. 2017). Does this imply that children would appreciate a colouring book with “so much print & so little colouring” (the actual proportion, as calculated by one of the reviewers, is 50/50), regardless of the quality of the story or its involvement of the colouring experience?37 Children’s reactions to printed media (particularly reactions of children with just elementary literacy) are hard, but not impossible to trace.

35I believe that studying colouring books as a medium has to be based on the actually coloured books. To this end, I’ve compiled a personal collection of Soviet colouring books from the 1950s and 1960s (both original copies and images sourced from sellers) through several online auctions, which now comprises over 600 copies. In brief, drawing from this source, one can argue that if a “good” colouring book is one that encourages the user to meticulously colour every space within the lines on every page (or at least most pages), there is no substantial variance toward colouring books in young colourers’ attitudes compared to the adults. Regardless of whether a colouring book contains a story—verbal or visual—the likelihood of the book being coloured in its entirety remains lower than one in 10. In fact, only one type of colouring book significantly increases these odds (over one in three): those that offer the same image in two identical-sized versions on the same spread—one coloured and the other outlined. Once this option is not available (even if the coloured original is presented in the same spread, but at a smaller size or on distant pages), the initial approach to a colouring book, as mentioned earlier, is to select and colour only the pages or elements deemed personally appealing or manageable. A colouring book may be “good” even if one chooses not to colour it at all. Let’s not forget that this medium originated as a means of manual labor to civilize a barbarian. If one questions this underlying design, why not set the colouring aside and simply enjoy the fine illustrations? Before transitioning to the final discussion, I believe it’s crucial to present instances of grafting storytelling and colouring, which prove to be fruitful either in terms of the colouring experience or in the book market context.

Seeds of narrative in colouring and whether they germinate

36I will start with the Soviet colouring storybooks of the 1960s, which emerged as something radically different from “standard” colouring books in the middle of that decade. The Editorial Team for Printed Games at the Malysh publishing house, and especially one of its editors, L. Arkharova (her given name was never revealed), played a pivotal role in this experimental endeavour. Many of those books are available in several coloured copies in my collection, allowing for a comparison between the authors’ and publishers’ intended goals and the actual practice of colouring.

37The members of the Malysh Printed Games department were not eager to speak to the public, but a late statement by Ekaterina Karganova, who headed the team for several decades, offers valuable insight:

A child cannot live without game as he cannot live without air. And we must use this natural and irrepressible passion of his for educational goals. A child has a right for game which will help him in the great unfamiliar adults’ world make his “great” discoveries, overcome difficulties, assert himself, gain self-esteem… There is a goal and an overarching goal in a game. For children only the process of playing, the “game action” is important. That is the goal set up for themselves by those playing. And they reach it themselves. But the overarching goal, the major and actual goal of the game is totally different. It is to teach a child to overcome the innate egoism, to graft an uneasy skill of subjugating personal desires and interests to the interests and desires of the others. Finally, to form the child’s character, develop in harmony his spirit and mind. (Karganova, 1984: 61)

  • 38 It was a long effect of the 1930’s ideological campaign against “pedological” testing.

38She repeated almost verbatim writings and ideas that her teacher and predecessor, Elizaveta Grozdova deployed in the 1930s, the same post-Fröbelian ideas that we saw before. An egotistical child should be subjugated to the higher collective goals by the means of a game which “naturally” makes the repression invisible. It means that there should be concealed higher rules in a game, and if children develop their own opposing rules, the game should be developed further in order to make the hidden ultimate objective self-derived from the “game action”. As Karganova’s group never tested games on children focus groups before they were published (the adults tested the designs on themselves),38 their production can be viewed as a series of trials and errors, making their diversity informative for a study.

  • 39 Such a view on colouring book design is attested in Natalia Filimonova’s 1970 review of the 1960’s (...)

39The trajectory of Malysh experiments in colouring book design illustrates their quest to create a solution that entices children to colour entire books correctly (i.e. in accordance with adults’ plan), without resorting to the coercion of mechanical copying.39 Introducing narratives to colouring was initially seen as a method to maintain children’s engagement with a book. However, when this simple juxtaposition of whatever text and image for colouring failed (similarly to the issue faced by Ivy and the Inky Butterfly), the team explored alternative avenues.

Images 12. – Unknown artist, The Book for Colouring, postcard, early 1960s (?), published by the Izdatelstvo khudozhestvennoj bazy (Budapest).

Images 12. – Unknown artist, The Book for Colouring, postcard, early 1960s (?), published by the Izdatelstvo khudozhestvennoj bazy (Budapest).

Private collection.

Image 13. – Unknown artist (different from that of pictures 15–16), Colouring of A. Bazhenov’s illustration in Mikhalkov & Bazhenov (1966), fragment.

Image 13. – Unknown artist (different from that of pictures 15–16), Colouring of A. Bazhenov’s illustration in Mikhalkov & Bazhenov (1966), fragment.

Private collection.

40One particularly effective approach involved short texts placed in each spread, occupying less than a quarter of a page and written to be as narrative-driven as possible, even if they were describing a butterfly, flower, or tree. This textual enhancement transformed each spread into a self-contained piece of art. Its effectiveness is also affirmed by Kerby Rosanes’s “Mythic World”, where individual images are explained by short texts in the final pages of the book. Users have enthusiastically embraced this feature, with reviews highlighting its advantages. For example, a reviewer writes:

  • 40 Here, again, I use the Amazon comments and average evaluation, which is in this case 4.8 out of 5, (...)

I love this book. I love that he included a section where he gave insight into every image he drew in conjunction with the myth that he was specifically illustrating. Every page has a short explanation as to the story behind every myth. And each picture is a separate myth that inspired these illustrations. It’s wonderful! (Chiara Lipiro, 5 stars, 9 Apr. 2022)40

41However, the exploration of Malysh editors did not stop at this point. There was an ongoing series of efforts to use the interaction between colouring and narrative to create a cohesive experience, extending throughout the entire book. It is the diversity of these efforts that I would like to discuss further in more detail.

  • 41 Surprisingly, another basic type of colouring narrative, involving the personification of colours a (...)

42The first, most obvious, and most repetitive approach was telling a story about a world, endangered by colour loss (the white colour), which was to be normalized by adding colour. The story settings could vary significantly: a heavy rain that washed away all the colours, the sun taking a carrot for a brush and starting to paint anew (Vasilevskaia & Svobodova, 1965); an evil wizard stealing all the colours, countered by heroic children armed with crayons (Pogorelovskij & Koliusheva, 1967); a tiny creature colouring the forest flowers every night but struggling to sleep (Smirnov & Keleinikov, 1969), and so on. This kind of story was relatively easy to write,41 yet the sparsely coloured copies in my collection lead me to presume that they didn’t strongly stimulate colouring. However, they certainly appealed to adults and were well sold—both Vasilevskaia’s and Smirnov’s books saw second editions with increased print runs. Nonetheless, alternative solutions were also possible.

43Perhaps the most intricate variant is the story by Sofia Prokofieva and Evgeny Rein, titled What shall I gift to Ded Moroz?, illustrated by Sergei Tsiporin and produced by L. Arkharova (Prokofieva, Rein & Tsiporin, 1966). On New Year’s Eve, a boy decides to search for Ded Moroz (the Soviet equivalent of Santa) and ask what he wants as a gift. A heavy snowfall occurs, covering the world in white. As Ded Moroz is himself dressed in white, everybody around him appears as he does. However, they shake off the snow during conversation, revealing people of different professions dressed in various colours. In the end, one person remains white—Ded Moroz—who gives the boy a box of crayons, stating that he prefers children’s pictures. The boy decides to draw everything that happened to him that day. This structure isn’t merely a “reading and colouring what was lived and drawn in this story” format, which was also occasionally employed (Volkov & Shchapov, 1965; Vladimirov & Kuzmin, 1969). Instead, it invites the reader to experience a new technique: when the boy meets white people revealing their true colours, the act of adding colour isn’t just colouring the pages but rather revealing truth beneath the white page, akin to images where one scrapes off black wax to expose coloured paper traces. My collection only contains one copy of this book, but it’s clear that the approach worked in this case. Not only are all the coloured figures revealed (Tsiporin leaves only “white people” blank, as if for wax scraping), but the colourist also chose to display the true colour of Ded Moroz’s coat, which is—a fact known to every Soviet child—not white, but red.

Image 14. – Unknown artist. Colouring of S. Tsiporin’s illustration in Prokofieva, Rein & Tsiporin (1966).

Image 14. – Unknown artist. Colouring of S. Tsiporin’s illustration in Prokofieva, Rein & Tsiporin (1966).

Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.

  • 42 “книгу… очень любила и могла подолгу рассматривать. Ч/б иллюстрации не казались серыми и унылыми, а (...)

44Another intricate variant of turning colouring into a world changing experience through narrative was the use of an invitation to add, not colour, but light into the world—overcoming fear, be it the panic epidemy caused by “frightful, grey, shaggy” morning fog (Kozlov & Repkin, 1969) or the vortex of dark, fear, loneliness, hunger, and violence in Eduard Shim’s Sleep, sleep, baby mice illustrated by Mikhail Mezheninov, again produced by Arkharova (Shim & Mezheninov, 1969). It is an extremely uneasy story: baby mice wake up in the midst of the night, it is dark, and the mother is absent. They start crying and different animals (a hare, a cuckoo, a frog) come to the window to silence them: baby hares, cuckoos, and frogs don’t bother their parents, so baby mice should sleep; but they continue crying. Finally, the mother-mouse returns: she had left to search for food for her babies, but had to hide for a long time from an owl. She “bites one child, pinches another, beats the third, and they fall asleep—happyyyy”. This book was read and re-read by many children. One of them remembers: “I loved this book and could contemplate it for a long time. B/W illustrations did not seem grey and dull, and the coloured end leaves and the cover were totally pleasing to the eye… Most of all I liked the cosy mousehole” [knizhkin_dom, 21 Aug. 2012].42 One of the copies in my collection was read to the point of the cover falling off; it was then clumsily glued back together and the reading continued. There is no doubt as to what exactly made the “coloured end leaves” so “totally pleasing”: those were the only two pages with light. The first page of the initial spread started the reading experience with sun setting; the last one of the final spreads concluded with the “cosy mousehole” lit by a hurricane lamp. It was saying goodbye to the light at the very start, immersing into darkness, fear, and depression, and finally returning to the joy of light through the imaginary pain caused by one’s own mother. Colouring could render/make that darkness less intensive.

Image 15. – Unknown artist, Colouring of M. Mezheninov’s illustration in Shim & Mezheninov (1969).

Image 15. – Unknown artist, Colouring of M. Mezheninov’s illustration in Shim & Mezheninov (1969).

Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.

45Almost every spread featured the offer to colour some light source—the moon, the stars, a lamp. Only one of my two copies is coloured (the other was part of a kindergarten library and not allowed to be coloured)—the unknown colourist chose to colour the elements of light first of all, and only in the first pages, quite certainly giving more efforts to them than to the other objects (the lamp and the moon are the only objects coloured with two colours). The book was a success: it was re-issued two years later with a higher print run.

  • 43 The title follows another colouring book, Where the Flowers Came to Us from (Zelenkov, 1963). Both (...)

46Adding colour to a spread could also be presented as experiencing an act of a real transgressional magic. I. Rublev’s colouring book Who Came to Us from Where?, also produced by Arkharova, unsurprisingly, develops one of the most common themes of the Moscow colouring books: animals in the zoo (Rublev, 1967). Rublev’s solution, not immediately obvious, is breath-taking once it’s recognized. The title of the book (as well as very short captions accompanying each spread) suppose stories of wild animals coming to the civilized zoo.43 Rublev makes these stories go another way. On the left pages of each spread beautiful animals are depicted in full colour behind their barbarian zoo cages; on the right ones, offered for colouring, they are depicted individually, free and in their natural habitat. The action of colouring thus magically liberates animals and returns them to their homes.

Image 16. – Unknown artist, Colouring of I. Rublev’s illustration in Rublev (1967).

Image 16. – Unknown artist, Colouring of I. Rublev’s illustration in Rublev (1967).

Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.

47I will finish this review with a case where the creators’ will to stimulate colouring with a narrative produced unexpected results. The story for the colouring book How Should I Start? (1966) was written by the notorious Soviet poet Sergei Mikhalkov. The story is a fine piece of first-person, present-tense narrative of a boy (almost psychedelic, as if dictating to his tape recorder while in a trance) who decides to start painting and, at a wild pace, creates a series of grotesque animal drawings, starting with one part of the body and not always ending the image as would be expected. A wolf becomes a giraffe; an elephant—a piglet; spontaneously, a two-headed lion appears on the sheet, and the boy turns the sheet over in horror, and so on, at an ever-accelerating pace. At the end of the book, the child enthusiastically says that he will continue tomorrow.

48What colouring experience arose from this text? In the supplement to the story, some pages for colouring were added, suggesting to readers: “NOW DRAW YOURSELF. The artist has painted many animals and birds, but he did not have time to colour some [of them]. Try it yourself—what will you get?”

49Two copies from my collection allow me to appreciate what they sometimes got. Both children coloured all the blank elements and both, in one way or another and to varying degrees, abandoned realistic colouring in favour of a non‑controlled mixture of all the colours. Tiger or elephant in the whole spectrum of the rainbow? Yes! Blue and green rabbits? Yes! Yellow-brown-green and purple-green dogs? Yes! Green-blue-burgundy and blue giraffes? Yes! Green and red camel? Certainly.

Images 17–18. – Unknown artist, Colouring of A. Bazhenov’s illustrations in Mikhalkov & Bazhenov (1966), fragments.

Images 17–18. – Unknown artist, Colouring of A. Bazhenov’s illustrations in Mikhalkov & Bazhenov (1966), fragments.

Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.

50Nothing in the text of the book itself seems to have told colourists that they needed to colour like this. Moreover, in one of the copies, most of the animals are coloured according to the standard (but it is here that the iridescent tiger and elephant appear). It is not the words proper that speak, but the montage technique, the point of view. The accelerating pace, rejection of the controlling ratio, any reflection discarded as unnecessary, fixation of what comes to mind just here and now, being only accidentally connected with what arises in the next moment; and at the end of the text—the encouragement of everything produced. The control was removed, the doors to the world of complete freedom opened. It must have frightened the creators.

  • 44 Mikhalkov’s book had been edited by O. Lebedev; it was after it was published that Arkharova was tr (...)

51While How Should I Start? was in print, Mikhalkov wrote and published another text about a child drawing what comes to mind—a poem about a pink bull, an orange road, and crossed out apples as a sign that they were blown away by the wind. It was this poem and not the dead forgotten How Should I Start? which became a classic, being reprinted a thousand times, memorized, and read by heart. The verses that concluded the poem, “I pinned the drawing [to the wall], although it came out badly” (Mikhalkov, 1966), returned a rational adult to the text, giving an assessment to all this childish ineptitude and rampage. It seems that the whole project behind Arkharova’s elaborate editions stemmed from this point, as an effort to put the paste back into a tube.44

  • 45 In his preface, Palahniuk vividly recalls his childhood encounters with colouring books, marking th (...)

52While the Soviet experiments of the 1960s demonstrate that narrative can effectively interact with the colouring book format, these remain unstable hybrids, capable of yielding results either fruitless or unexpected. It might be safer to add just a little flavour of colouring to a compelling story. An acclaimed author like Chuck Palahniuk, alongside the Dark Horse Books team, successfully did this in 2016 with the short story collection Bait. Feedback, including Amazon reviews, underscores its warm reception due to its original design idea featuring adult-oriented short stories within a book that formally resembles children’s literature and complemented by offline illustrations crafted by top comic book illustrators.45 Yet, the “bait” wasn’t enticing enough to enable the replication of said success with longer narratives, as evidenced by Dark Horse Books’ and Palahniuk’s decision not to revisit the strategy after the 2017 novel Legacy. A different approach proved far more fruitful. In 2018, children’s detective author Krista Davis launched the Pen & Ink series—detective stories geared more toward adults. It is distinguished by the offline design of covers intended for colouring and its main character, who manages an antiquarian bookstore and is at the same time an arduous artist of colouring books for adults, propagating her art and the medium. By 2022, the fourth book in the series had been released, with more potentially on the horizon.

Some outlines for general discussion

53At this point, I find myself positioned to address my initial question: does a colouring book require a narrative? It certainly does not.

54This is not a surprising answer when considering the burgeoning market of contemporary “mindfulness” mandalas tailored for adults. These mandalas, designed to facilitate meditative “non-judgmental acceptance” (Dauden Roquet et al., 2021), deliberately eschew narrative guidance (supported by research indicating that individuals practicing mandala colouring for mindfulness prefer an absence of voice guidance or instructions (Mantzios & Giannou, 2018)). Yet, the answer is not so simple. There is a certain trend, attested to historically in different global and local traditions as well as in the practice of individual artists, demonstrating a gradual infusion of narrative into images for colouring and colouring books. This trend even extends to mandalas, a genre often associated with abstract designs.

  • 46 Chatzipanagiotou has almost 125 thousand followers on Instagram. The drift from mandalas to non‑ver (...)

55Consider, for instance, Marion and Werner Tiki Küslenmacher’s work Achtsamkeit mit Mandalas aus aller Welt, wherein historical mandala-like designs are contextualized within pages of descriptive and narrative commentary, accompanied by an extensive introduction covering colour theory, theological aspects of colour, and technical colouring instructions: motive, geographical and historical indices, and a table of contents (Küslenmacher & Küslenmacher, 2020). The colouring books by the immensely popular mandalas artist Melpomeni Chatzipanagiotou constitute another example, which progressively integrate figurative elements and storytelling with each successive release.46 How might we explain such a trend?

56At some point, as was already mentioned, the history and present of colouring book met the ancient theory and practice of rhetoric education (modern school development of the ekphrasis writing of the past). Another intersection of rhetoric and colouring appears even more significant to me. Ancient rhetoricians understood well that human language possesses the power to conjure mental images. They also underscored the fundamental dichotomy between descriptio and narratio—the former concerning the description of static images of observable objects and the latter encapsulating the portrayal of an entire sequence of events within a single, static frame. This division held equal significance for the realms of art history and theory, shaping longstanding assessments. For instance, it contributed to the tradition of considering the “descriptive” art of the early modern Netherlands, encompassing landscapes and still-life paintings, as inferior when contrasted with the “narrative” approach of Italian art, which predominantly featured historical and allegorical subjects (Alpers, 1983).

  • 47 The earliest relevant entries in both Fonds Heure joyeuse online collection and the catalogue of Am (...)
  • 48 Critics praising the art of Kate Greenaway and her collaborators used quite revealing language to d (...)

57It is not coincidental that the earliest (art-educating) colouring books, following the tradition of art education, were “descriptive” and transitioned to “narrative” only after the practice became customary.47 The late‑1870’s success of The Little Folks Painting Book was not due to the novelty of the colouring book. It was due, rather, to the fact that, while this particular storybook for colouring was built on the ground of a well-established practice, regarded as inferior and ignoble,48 it was, this time, sold in the pleasant wrapping of moral storytelling and soul-saving charity. Both the 1960s’ Malysh and Kerby Rosanes’s editions utilized this shift from image to image with plain description, and finally to description foiled by narration—a parallel that seems more than coincidental.

58Changes in Rosanes’s employment of text in his Worlds series are evident even in the titles of their text sections. The first two issues used simple, bold headings: “About the animals” or “About the myths” (five or six short descriptions follow the heading on the same page). Conversely, the words “The Astronaut’s Log”—the title of the section in Alien Worlds—are situated in the center of a page depicting an astronaut’s helmet, promising a story.

59The similarity between the language changes in the transition from description to narration both in Malysh and Rosanes’s editions should be demonstrated by citations:

Table 1. – Description and narration in the colouring books of the Malysh publishing house in the 1960s and in Kerby Rosanes’s books in the 2020s.

 

DESCRIPTION

NARRATION

1960’s Malysh editions

Aloe (an arboraceous plant with green, gray-green and spotted leaves) came to us from Africa
(Zelenkov, 1963: 2)

And this butterfly is not like a flower. But what the beauty of wings she has! Each one—with an iridous eye. As if on the tail of the proud peacock. People have noticed it long ago and called the butterfly Peacock’s Eye. That is true: when the butterfly lands on the grass, it seems, a tiny peacock has flown down on the meadow.
(Gurevich & Gavrilov, 1965: 4)

Kerby Rosanes

Whale sharks are found in the world’s tropical oceans. They are the largest fish alive today and travel huge distances to find enough plankton to feed on to sustain their size. Their meat, fins and oil are highly valued and overhunting remains a threat to the population of their species.
(Rosanes, 2021: 92)

No one knows for sure how this planetary mechanism was formed, but the answer probably lies with the Timekeeper. A sentient mechanical creature that lives in the center of the world, this being holds the answers to many questions, but he never tells…
(Rosanes, 2023: 95)

60In both cases, there is an unmistakable move from descriptio to narratio: here comes the narrator, the focal point, the frame, the character, the events. I argue that these findings suppose uneven relationships between the action of colouring and different modes of its mimetic framing. One might say that there is a constant discomfort with description—a will to make it more significant by adding a story.

  • 49 Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia (2012) is an interactive autofiction portraying a transgender woman undergoi (...)

61This narrative expansion can also be described in terms of colonization. Espen Aarseth articulated this notion at the height of the early 2000s debate between ludology and narrativism, which significantly shaped the field of computer game studies (Aarseth, 2004). This debate arose from the pursuit of a media-specific academic framework that could facilitate discussions about (computer) games as distinct entities, separate from the conventions of cinema or novels, which game developers, publishers, and scholars frequently drew upon. The discourse proved fruitful: it highlighted that digital interfaces, like other media, are capable of delivering narratives, yet it also underscored the media-specific interactions intrinsic to games (configurational structures that require players to manipulate them), which inherently transcend narrative (Murray, 2005; Ryan, 2006). In this context, a player might interpret a game like Tetris as a story and even identify with the falling blocks. However, while the design of abstract rectangular elements may not inherently encapsulate the narrative of a marginalized individual struggling to find their place in society, both abstract design and personal experiences of (de)signification and storytelling retain equal significance (Murray, 2018).49

62Notably, the abstract game Tetris (1985), a pivotal example for the ludology movement, was developed by Alexei Pazhitnov in the Soviet Union, a context characterized by the relative absence of private business ventures (although the creator did harbour intentions to commercialize his work). Conversely, from the early stages of video games, they were marketed (even by Soviet state publishers) with a narrative or, at the very least, some semblance of figurative mimesis.

  • 50 Editions that included some pages of abstract ornament colouring as a warm‑up before progressing to (...)

63A similar strategy, it seems, for a longtime hampered production of abstract or ornamental colouring books—even though, since colouring books’ earliest developments such as those by Augustin Legrand in the 1810–1820s, they were being published by the same enterprises, offering to the same young audience ornamental (and, to some extent, abstract) patterns for embroidery. The earliest edition for abstract/ornamental colouring known to me is the 1939 set of tiny colouring sheets by D. G. Persits and A. F. Rusiaeva, called Mosaics.50 This project seems to have been heavily influenced by Yakov Chernikhov’s Ornament (Chernikhov, 1930). Interestingly, the instruction manual suggests the possibility of using the patterns for embroidery. This idea for a colouring book design was marginal. The Malysh publishing house didn’t venture into the publication of its first abstract ornamental colouring books until the early 1970s. The most non‑figurative among them, featuring images by A. Khudatov, was simply titled Colour It (Khudatov, 1972), and it was contextualized within a broader series of Malysh colouring books focusing on Soviet pre‑industrial peasant art.

Images 19–20. – Kate Greenaways’s illustrations in Greenaway (1878: 11), fragments.

Images 19–20. – Kate Greenaways’s illustrations in Greenaway (1878: 11), fragments.

Source: <https://girlsandboysinstoryland.wordpress.com> / Exeter Central Library.

Images 21–22. – Unknown artists, Colouring of Kate Greenaways’s illustrations in Greenaway (1878: 11), fragment.

Images 21–22. – Unknown artists, Colouring of Kate Greenaways’s illustrations in Greenaway (1878: 11), fragment.

Source: <archive.org> / University of California Libraries.

Image 23. – Unknown artist, Colouring of Kate Greenaways’s illustrations in Greenaway (1881: 11), fragment.

Image 23. – Unknown artist, Colouring of Kate Greenaways’s illustrations in Greenaway (1881: 11), fragment.

Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.

Image 24. – Unknown artist, Colouring of Kate Greenaways’s illustrations in Greenaway (1878: 11), fragment.

Image 24. – Unknown artist, Colouring of Kate Greenaways’s illustrations in Greenaway (1878: 11), fragment.

Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.

Image 25. – Tableau no 16, “Tapis des lampes”, from A. Legrand’s L’art de broder (1829?).

Image 25. – Tableau no 16, “Tapis des lampes”, from A. Legrand’s L’art de broder (1829?).

Source: <gallica.bnf.fr> / BnF.

Image 26. – Model and colouring by unknown artist of the first spread in McLaughlin (1890s?).

Image 26. – Model and colouring by unknown artist of the first spread in McLaughlin (1890s?).

Author’s photo of author’s personal copy.

Image 27. – Cover, model, instruction and partially coloured off‑line of Persits & Rusiaeva (1939).

Image 27. – Cover, model, instruction and partially coloured off‑line of Persits & Rusiaeva (1939).

Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.

Image 28. – A spread from Khudatov (1972).

Image 28. – A spread from Khudatov (1972).

The Russian National Library. Photo: A. Kostin.

  • 51 Other early examples of abstract ornament colouring books I am aware of are Hoe Daan Hoeksema’s De  (...)
  • 52 Cf. the description of the copy of a 1970s edition sold at Abebooks by the Smith Family Bookstore D (...)

64The direct link between modern adult colouring books, mandalas, and the editions of the 1970s can be established by comparing the Malysh editions to the Dover Colouring Books sub‑series by Dover Publications, based in New York.51 This connection becomes evident when considering the emergence of abstract colouring patterns during the global fascination with New Age and tradition reinventions of that era. An illustrative example is Paul E. Kennedy’s North American Indian Design Colouring Book (Kennedy, 1971), which launched the Dover series and consistently featured the reproduction of aboriginal pre‑industrial design patterns and presented abstract circular mandala-like compositions for colouring. It’s noteworthy that within the same Dover Pictorial Archive Series that included the publisher’s early colouring books, a collection of reproductions from Yakov Chernikhov’s Ornament was also published. This compilation, selected by Edmund V. Gillon, Jr., featured mostly circular forms and was released in 1969 and throughout the 1970s (Chernikhov, 1969). Some copies of these editions attest to their use as colouring books.52

Image 29. – Unknown artist, Colouring of Sauk and Fox (Woodland) and Navajo (Southwest) designs from Kennedy (1971).

Image 29. – Unknown artist, Colouring of Sauk and Fox (Woodland) and Navajo (Southwest) designs from Kennedy (1971).

Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.

65The contemporary boom in mandalas and colouring books for adults can be seen as a phase of a long developmental trajectory for a medium that, despite its history spanning over 150 years, still appears to be in its nascent stages. Throughout this evolution, both the industry and its audience have gradually embraced colouring as a form of creative expression that transcends figurative representation, mimetic accuracy, and traditional narrative structures. Instead, colouring has evolved into a non‑figurative, non‑mimetic, and non‑narrative practice, focusing on immediate engagement with colour manipulation within predefined boundaries. Significant development is possible in constructing and modelling these interactions, including (but not necessarily) narrative devices. Maybe someone can start with filling in the blank spaces left here.

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Notes

1 This pertains to the notion of a professional colour artist as mentioned in the title pages of comic books, or an artist (manual worker) involved in applying colours to blank forms, whether they be toys, dishes, furniture, textiles, or maps and broadside pictures.

2 I would like to thank Elise Hjalmarson, Varvara Kostina, Alexei Evstratov, the anonymous reviewers of my paper, Dmitry Kalugin and my other former colleagues and students from St Petersburg ‘Vyshka’, as well as ChatGPT 3.5 engine for reading, correcting, editing and ameliorating this text. I could not unfortunately find enough spirit to cut away significant parts of the text, which was proposed for good reasons by several readers.

3 The phenomenon was seen as a surprise, producing a wave of mentions in media. Here is a selection of the most significant ones: Cahalan (2015), Carolan & Betts (2015), Hagerty & Trachtenberg (2015), Kokalitcheva (2015), Marcotte (2015), Raphel (2015), Roy (2015), Tivnan (2016). For Michelle Ann Abate the study of these publications and the very phenomenon of colouring books for adults serves as a starting case for her profound study of what she calls “children’s literature for adults” which emerged in the recent decades (Abate, 2020).

4 Conversely, “mandalas for colouring”, a genre of the colouring book hitting the European(ized) markets in the 1960s and instrumental for the medium renaissance in the early 2010s, is almost exclusively designed for adult consumers. As a result, simplified “mandalas” intended for younger colourists are labelled with a “for children” specification.

5 It is a rather broad area worth special discussion. The earliest reference I’ve encountered regarding the utilization of colouring books as therapeutic tools points to the practices of “American educators” who incorporated colouring books among a range of activities such as working with beads, wet sand and paper cutting as part of the rehabilitation regimen for children convalescing in a hospital (Fediaevskaya, 1939).

6 For notable exceptions, see: Angilery (1994), Ford Smith (2010), Goatley (2011).

7 In addition, Italian colouring books tend to be ABC-books more frequently and also more often promote writing the name of the owner/colourist/artist on the first page. Interestingly, my search in French offline bookstores yielded no “mandalas for children”, while they were readily available in Rome, Milan, and Florence.

8 Colouring books can certainly be regarded as an individual case of ephemera, with educational background considerably contributing and leading to low preservation rates of this “grey print”. This intermedial study of ephemera types is out of the scope of the current paper.

9 Carine Devillon offers an intriguing overview of the tradition of the colouring books in Korea which appears to be radically different from its European(ized) counterparts—evolving no sooner than in the 1970s and based, following American examples, on the use of colouring in the IQ testing and training. The study is based on the data provided by the catalogue of the National Library for Children and Young Adults in Seoul (Devillon, 2017). What if, like in the Soviet/Russian case, this catalogue only makes it possible to see what was considered worth being included into the catalogue or the library holdings? The data provided by the catalogues to exceptionally rich holdings of the Russian State Children’s Library in Moscow and its digital collection (<arch.rgdb.ru>) are largely irrelevant for the history of Soviet colouring books.

10 For example, since the mid‑1960s there were almost no Soviet colouring books based on images from popular movies or animated pictures—which was and still is an important driver of colouring books in the “Western” world. As soon as Soyuzmultfilm, the Soviet monopolist in animated movies, established its own print facilities, it severed its connections with “Malysh”, cutting the series of colouring books based on their cartoons (which initially played a significant role in introducing text to the publisher’s colouring books).

11 Refer to the most comprehensive description of a colouring book collection so far: Zillner (1992). A representative collection surveying the history of colouring book as a form of modern art from the 1980s till the present times, “Colouring Tour”, is compiled by the Paris-based artist Jean-Jacques Dumont (<colouring-tour.org>). An exemplary exhibition leading to the best digitized collection of colouring books to date occurred in 2017–2018 at the Parisian Médiathèque Françoise Sagan (Valotteau, 2017, 2018).

12 I primarily utilized two Russian platforms for online book auctions, Meshok (<meshok.net>) and “Alib” (<alib.ru>), as the main resources for compiling my database. I conducted searches using various Russian terms for “colouring book” (раскраска, [альбом] для раскрашивания, раскрашка, разукрашка, раскра*) and applied a limitation for the edition year. Additionally, I consulted online and paper catalogues from two major Russian libraries, RNB and RGB (<nlr.ru>; <rsl.ru>), along with the two previously mentioned national bibliographical registers (Cronicle Books, 1950–1970; Cronicle Image Prints, 1950–1970). For historical colouring books in other traditions, my main sources were the dedicated collection at BNF (<gallica.bnf.fr/html/und/litteratures/colouriages>), the General Catalogue of the American Antiquarian Society (<catalog.mwa.org>), the Worldcat catalogues (<worldcat.org>) and the online collection of the Musée national de l’Éducation in Rouen (<www.reseau-canope.fr/musee/collections>). As part of a field study conducted since September 2022, I have been registering colouring book sections in bookshops and, particularly, museum gift shops in locations I visited, including Grenoble and the Isere department, Paris, Milan, Rome, Volterra, Pisa, Zurich, Bern, Avignon and the Vaucluse region, Belgrade, Antwerp, Bruges, and Philadelphia (PE). Finally, I’ve gathered data from searches in various European languages for [colouring book] or [colouring book story] on e‑commerce platforms, primarily Amazon (<amazon.fr>) and AbeBooks (<abebooks.co.uk>). Keeping in mind relativity of my data I prefer not to cite precise numbers when dealing with statistics, opting to round numbers and percentages.

13 The existing literature on the history of colouring books is limited. In addition to the titles previously mentioned, readers are encouraged to explore works that primarily focus on individual artists or publishers or national traditions, as in Boulaire (2010), Defourny (2008, 2010), Devillon (2017), Gourévitch (2013), Golubeva (2019), Marsh (2015), Romano (2004).

14 The first two examples are drawn from a concise but currently unique study into the pre-history of colouring books “for adults” (Fabry, 2017); for an academic work closely aligned with this insightful piece of journalism, refer to (Iljić, 2020). In the context of colouring book history, the distinction between “drawing and colouring” and “colouring” is significant. To illustrate this, consider an explicit example from the mid‑1910s in Moscow. Ariadna Efron, the daughter of Marina Tsvetaeva, one of Russia’s prominent poets, recalled that her mother prohibited her from colouring the colouring books she received as gifts, stating: “Draw something yourself, then you can colour it; one who adds colours or copies [someone else’s], steals from herself and will never learn anything” (Efron, 1979: 35). While Tsvetaeva might have been extremely strict and demanding to her daughter, this notion of copying and colouring being inherently inferior was widespread from the emergence of colouring books in the 1880s (Ford Smith, 2015), persisting through at least the 1970s, with colouring being regarded as a less creative form of education (see criticisms of a long tradition of experiments aimed at proving that colouring hinders child development in King, 1991). Presently, the belief in colouring’s efficacy is so strong that meta-analyses are questioning whether colouring is truly more effective than free drawing in art therapy; both methods are found to be equally effective (Støre & Jakobsson, 2021). Since the 18th century, authors who claimed that their manuals taught both colouring and drawing often deemed “mere colouring” to be inferior. This perception of colouring’s inferiority could even apply to books seemingly designed specifically for colouring. Take, for instance, Robert Sayer’s The Florist Containing Sixty Plates of the Most Beautiful Flowers… to Which Is Added an Accurate Description of Their Colours with Instructions for Drawing and Painting according to Nature (1760). While this album might have been created as providing outlines to be filled with colour, it emphasizes drawing first (from nature, not copying others) and then colouring. The first plate in the collection, that of hyacinth, is intended for at least copying before colouring, as the author proposes three different colour pallets in the textual description. Antoin Pascal’s L’aquarelle, ou Les fleurs peintes d’après la méthode de M. Redouté (1837) conceals its “only colouring” approach within an extensive text. This work features just three plates for colouring and includes a section on colouring in a strict sense referred to as “drawing” (dessin), juxtaposed against the more forthright “fleurs peintes” (painted flowers) in the title. It is evident from the preface that Pascal intended to publish a complete series of “elementary flowers” for colouring, to be sold as separate sheets. Pascal’s album was notably aiming at the adult audience (while the Sayer’s one, as well as Robert Peachum’s The Compleat Gentleman (1622), also mentioned by Fabry, unequivocally speak of youth education). The earliest known to me example of engraved images specifically intended for what we would now call “colouring” is Pierre Alexandre Wille’s Éléments de peinture à l’aquarelle ou le jeune coloriste published by Augustin Legrand in the 1810s or 1820s—clearly served an educational purpose (for more on Legrand’s pioneering prints for children, see Desse, 2016).

15 Based on the records from the General Catalog of the American Antiquarian Society, which occasionally require adjustments to their dating, the earliest colouring books with English titles printed in or reaching the United States emerged during the late 1860s to early 1870s. Their titles are revealing: Little Painter, Little Artist, Exercises in Colouring or the Painters First Studies. For an insightful reading of a European (French) tradition of the colouring book as a means of artistic training see (Devillon, 2017).

16 It’s worth noting that in this artwork, the artist deliberately opts for crayons over the intended watercolours, selectively applying colour only to specific elements. The technique of juxtaposing significant blank spaces with vividly coloured zones emerged in the Western artistic scene around the same time as colouring books, roughly between the 1860s and the early 1880s. This phenomenon can be observed in works such as James Whistler’s Symphonies in White from the 1860s and the notable stylistic shifts of female students at the Académie Julian around 1880, exemplified by artists like Eugénie Alexandrine Marie Salanson, Amélie Helga Lundahl, and Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz. The early colouring books were not merely intended for “colouring”, but also aimed at producing art in a vibrant modern manner (Ford Smith, 2015). The artistic approach evident in this colouring work resonates more closely with figures like Beardsley than Whistler, and shares similarities with Mucha rather than Sargent. The shifts in artistic education in the mid‑19th century—for example, John Ruscin’s insistence on paying more attention to shading and colour than to the exact outlines (Marzio, 1976)—seem extremely important for the emergence of colouring/drawing books as a significant media type in the late 19th century.

17 The book was designed for children but was in fact also coloured at least by young adults. The competition was first intended for children of 6 to 15 years; later due to multiple requests a new age section (15 to 18 years) was added (St Nicolas, 1884: 270).

18 The entire concept of the St Nicolas colouring competition closely mirrored a series of steps that were initiated in 1878 by the London-based magazine Little Folks. This included the selection of previously published texts from the magazine, a strong emphasis on moral reading and a charitable aspect, provisions for colourers aged 15 to 18 years, and advertisements for watercolour supplies. The books for these competitions, in London as well as in Paris, were illustrated by the famed artists like Kate Greenaway, whose work was unequivocal reference for Boutet de Monvel (Greenaway, 1878; Weatherly, 1879(?); Grand-Carteret, 1888: 526–7; Ford Smith, 2015). Shortly thereafter, Greenaway’s illustrations began to circulate without accompanying text, appearing in both plagiarized versions (Edwards, 2016) and authorized editions.

19 Compare this phrasing with a British critic praising A Painting Book by Kate Greenaway exactly for it can be given to a child, as opposed to the artist’s valuable “books proper”, especially her Almanac: “That the bookling, which is delightedly printed and produced, is likely to be delivered over to the tiny folk for whose pastime it is made we hesitate to believe. It will probably be locked away in an impregnable hold, and only brought out when of benevolence and reward. This is by no means the case with her ‘Little Folks’ Painting Book… It is a book for wear and tear—a common, every-day delight.” (Art in Nursery, 1883: 131)

20 Per le famiglie i musei sono ancora più problematici. I bambini hanno tempi di attenzione diversi. Subito il bambino di nove anni scompare dietro l’angolo! Invece, il bambino di tre ani decide di sedersi per terra e di esplorare lo spazio sotto la panchina. Chissa dov’è finito il resto della famiglia? Prima di farsi prendere dal panico, riorganizziamoci e riprendiamo fiato. Questa guida ha lo scopo di aiutare le famiglie a passare più tempo a guardare i depinti del museo e, sopratutto, a vedere di più nei dipinti che vedono. La guida fornisce suggerimenti per nuovi modi di guardare, strumenti per disegnare, suggerimenti per scrivere, puzzle, storie e domande.

21 It is indeed revealing that just a few years ago Crockett Johnson had to answer to the criticism of the margin design in his and Ruth Krauss’ editions which, according to the critics, provoked children’s “crayon vandalism” (Nel, 2012).

22 Authors of (Renonciat, 2011: 27) offer an example of a late 17th‑century Comenius’s Vestibulum, seemingly (but not necessarily) coloured in the selective manner characteristic for the modern colouring books, insisting that Comenius himself was encouraging colouring printed pictures as a pedagogical practice. I could not find any passage proving this in Comenius’ writings, at least in the chapters XVII and XIX of his Didactica Magna—the only two they mention.

23 In France the standard genre name of these booklets was l’imagier (Renonciat, 2011: 72–75).

24 During the 1950s–70s, the genre marker “Colour and Tell” also gained prominence.

25 One can argue, that the whole 1880’s emergence of colouring books was due to narrative potential of the images. The second-oldest colouring book with a verified date in the Fonds Heure Joyeuse’s digitized collection is A Painting Book by Kate Greenaway (1884). While this publication solely features images, it draws from a selection of previously published stories and poems. Among the earliest books in the same Paris collection there is also a E. Blanche’s series Quelques pages d’histoire, intended for instruction in history much more than for art.

26 Vera Kiesewalter, Soviet artist of German ancestry. Around 1941 she had to move from Moscow to Udmurtia—most probably to be closer to her husband held in a GULAG labour camp—and to become a school teacher there. Since 1939 she produced colouring sheets for Elizaveta Grozdova’s activity books (which would later lead to the creation of the “Malysh publisher); in these images she integrated alive-looking toys into scenes from everyday life. Her nephew and student Georgy Kiesewalter would become one of the founding members of the most prominent late Soviet counter-cultural art group “Collective actions”.

27 Emma? Esther? Barteneva? Bartanian? Barskova? — her works are solely signed with initials.

28 In clockwise direction, starting with top-left one: 1) Jacquette to tante mimi in Marseille, 1929, with clear fails in orthography: “nous alon a Marseille dans ving-trois jours”; 2) Renot to Tititi, 1922, asking “que me deje sin hacer el deber de Frances”, postmark drawn in child’s hand in the top‑right corner, NPG printer’s mark; 3) only signed “dein Harkhen”, before 1923 (this set of colouring postcards was sold internationally since the 1910’s, it is described in Iodko’s Moscow Detskij Mir trade catalogues around 1914); 4) L. to her or his “Chères grands-mère” et “chère Tantante” in Saint-Cloud, 1916, describing holidays: “J’ai passé de bonne vacances, je suis rester au lit jusqu’a 11h”, card published by “Imp. Ch. Courmont” in Paris; 5) Jacques to “Mon chèr Guy”, his brother and another person (father? cf. “je vous embrasse tout deux”), mid‑1910’s, sending “se chien que j’ai fait” and describing his holidays; with a postscript by the boys’ mother, card published by “G. Gerardin” in Paris; 6) Anna Maier’s answer to the letter of her “freundin” Elisabeth Schmidt in Potsdam, 1912, “die selbst-gemahlte Karte, welche dir hoffentlich gefallen wird” promisses to send later a full-length answer.

29 Instructions for these coloured postcards prohibited adults to help their children. In fact, in my collection of over 30 coloured postcards ranging from the 1900’s to the 1950’s none has any signs of corrections made by adult hand, and many (in French, German and Spanish) provide spelling mistakes typical for children. It seems that ‘natural’ tender clumsiness was part of the conventions of this kind of family communication.

30 In my collection only four cards mention the previous (?) colouring; three of them—in German and French—use just the same expression of “I’m sending you the picture that I have done myself”, and only one mentions the subject of the picture: “je t’envoi se chien que j’ai fait” (like that; very far from narrative, corresponding very well to the very static picture of a shepherd dog).

31 At his personal site Rosanes mentions his “11 illustrated books including The New York Times best‑seller, Animorphia in 2015, which is now available in 30 language editions in over 40 countries” (<https://kerbyrosanes.com/about>). Basford at her personal site recommends her books this way: “I’ve sold 21 million of them around the world, perhaps you’ve seen one?’ (<www.johannabasford.com>). Rosanes has almost a million followers at Instagram; Basford—almost 200 thousand of them.

32 The most common of them—the book is regarded as a “heirloom” which is to be illuminated as a medieval manuscript and offered to children and grandchildren to be kept through generations.

33 It seems that Kerby Rosanes’s “Worlds” series is also discontinued: his announced 2024 major edition, Reflections, to be released in March, is advertised by LOM Art editor as employing “Kerby’s use of mirror imagery”, with “an introduction to colour theory and the science and art of using a colour wheel” instead of narrative glimpses into the stories behind the images.

34 The series opened in April with Les malheurs de Sophie by Comtesse de Ségur illustrated by Soba with a preface by Anaïs Demoustier, followed in May by the very Lewis Carrol’s Alice au pays des merveilles, illustrated by Amélie Barnathan with an Isabelle Carré’s preface. Amazon reactions to both editions are extremely rare (7 and 5 respectively in September 2023). Two of only four Amazon comments deal with the question of how story interacts with the colouring experience (Amélie T., 3 stars, 18 Apr. 2016; B0b, 5 stars, 13 May 2017), and as well as a review of a dedicated blog (Yann, <colouriagepouradultes.fr>, 30 Apr. 2016) they unanimously reveal the reasons for the series failure, very close to those of the Basford’s “Ivy”: colouring fans want to have as much colouring as possible in their colouring books; for reading they would choose something else.

35 Yann Autret, who was publishing under the pseudonym Fañch at the time, authored his sole colouring book (Roman à colorier) titled Andrinople et Alizarine: Les contes d’amour fou (Autret, 1999), the only known to me long verbal narrative for adults directly built on the interactive practice of (non-)colouring. For him it was an experimental step between his comic books (BD) for adults and youth-oriented coloured storybooks.

36 Colourist (around 10 years old at that time) does not remember the experience of colouring the book to impress her much, though she has coloured numerous pages throughout all the book. Most pages only feature colouring of sporadic selected spots/elements. I love Lena L’s adding, in her copy of (Comtesse de Ségur, 2016), the text “black, red, blue, orange and white” with an arrow aimed at the feathers of the “Black Hen” (chapter title) instead of colouring them. It is a 19th century story about a black hen, which is illustrated in the modern “art therapy” colouring book, implying innumerous tiny feathers designed to be coloured in multiple colours.

37 Inferiority of the quality of children’s colouring books compared to their adult counterparts is a big issue. As mentioned by Michelle Ann Abate, “[g]enerally speaking, colouring books for adults contain more pages; they use a higher quality of paper stock; they are assembled using more sophisticating bookbinding methods; they contain images that are more detailed and intricate; and, finally, they are more expensive” (Abate, 2020, 23–24). Cf. a characteristic passage in a market study built on the presumption that children are supposed to be happy with whatever colouring book their parents find in their bookstore: “the continuous availability of a specific colouring book is expected to be less important than for specific magazines or popular books” (Oldenburger et al., 2018).

38 It was a long effect of the 1930’s ideological campaign against “pedological” testing.

39 Such a view on colouring book design is attested in Natalia Filimonova’s 1970 review of the 1960’s Malysh advances in this medium (Filimonova, 1970). Filimonova’s pivotal ideas concerning colouring books—that they are to be designed as a first step of art education in order for a child to colour them completely in accordance with the publisher’s intricate design, and that a child is actually a barbarian in a need of discipline—coincide with the joke of an anonymous cartoon for an early 1960s post card, where a toddler, while refusing to interact with a dull colouring book for mechanical copying, prefers instead to cover in every paint himself, his clothes, his teddy bear and his room, mimetically following giraffe’s pattern (with cock’s colours?).

40 Here, again, I use the Amazon comments and average evaluation, which is in this case 4.8 out of 5, with over a thousand and a half evaluations.

41 Surprisingly, another basic type of colouring narrative, involving the personification of colours and their interaction through mixing (as in Autret (1999), both following and building on this model), remained absent from Malysh editors’ and authors’ works until the 1970s (see Kozlov & Sergeev, 1977). The only Soviet colouring album of the 1960s that employed colour personification as a narrative device was the Multicoloured Stories album, written by M. Sergeev and illustrated by the renowned duo of Erik Bulatov and Oleg Vasiliev in 1968 but only published two years later (Sergeev, Bulatov & Vasiliev, 1970). Noteworthy, the three stories about basic colours (blue, green and yellow) are all of the adding-colour-saves-the-day type and treat colours as distinct entities without providing opportunities for them to intermix. This is maybe the best illustration to the Malysh colouring books from this decade being primarily designed not as tools for artistic education.

42 “книгу… очень любила и могла подолгу рассматривать. Ч/б иллюстрации не казались серыми и унылыми, а цветные форзацы и обложка и вовсе радовали глаз… […] Больше всего мне нравилась уютная мышиная норка…” (<https://knizgkin-dom.livejournal.com/133917.html>)

43 The title follows another colouring book, Where the Flowers Came to Us from (Zelenkov, 1963). Both colouring books were a part of unmistakingly imperial type of Malysh editions, constructing Moscow as a metropolis of the global communist world which collected the best from its every part.

44 Mikhalkov’s book had been edited by O. Lebedev; it was after it was published that Arkharova was transferred to the department of printed games from the department of popular science.

45 In his preface, Palahniuk vividly recalls his childhood encounters with colouring books, marking them as a source of trauma due to adult oversight and the disregard of a child’s artistic endeavours, often culminating in the disposal of completed colouring books. In contrast, Bait, centred around parent-child relationships and familial dynamics, is designed to last with its durable hardcover format. Simultaneously, it pays homage to children’s literature through its expansively clear lettering.

46 Chatzipanagiotou has almost 125 thousand followers on Instagram. The drift from mandalas to non‑verbal narration is evident even from the titles: Les mandalas d’Hildegarde à colorier (2016); Circle of Life (2021); Nature Mandalas (2022); Enchanted Earth (2023). With every iteration the titles and the books are getting less abstract, more figurative and more story-driven: “enchantment” calls out a story.

47 The earliest relevant entries in both Fonds Heure joyeuse online collection and the catalogue of American Antiquarian Society or the online collection of the Musée national de l’Éducation in Rouen are for the books with landscapes, still-lives, very static portraits and depictions of animals. A trait-like instruction for Couleru’s École de dessin. Nouveau cours élémentaire de coloris et d’aquarelle published in the mid‑1850’s enumerates only four types of ‘coloris’ (here used exactly in the meaning of “colouring book”): 1) Lanscape; 2) “Figure (i.e. “any compositions where a person is the main subject of the picture”); 3) Flowers and fruits; 4) Animals, birds and the natural history in general (Couleru, 185?: 6). Landscape and flowers were the types utilised in the 1810’s–1820’s by Augustin Legrand.

48 Critics praising the art of Kate Greenaway and her collaborators used quite revealing language to distance it from children’s books (including colouring books) of the previous decades: “smudgy abominations”, “grotesque ineptitudes”, and “hideous libels upon man and art and nature” (Art in Nursery, 1883: 128).

49 Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia (2012) is an interactive autofiction portraying a transgender woman undergoing hormone therapy. Designed as a sequence of visually primitive gaming experiences, with the one reminiscent of Tetris playing a pivotal role, it has helped to both undermine and redefine the entire concept of a video game (see detailed research and manifesto: Anthropy, 2012). A similar revision of colouring books is to be found in Heinrich Böll’s story Entfernung von der Truppe (1964), a story of a transgressive and asocial survivor of World War II. An experimental non‑linear I‑narrative, filled with regressions, comments, and invitations for readers to fill in blank spaces with their own creations, it employs a child’s experience with primitive colouring books (Malhefte) as its leading meta-narrative metaphor.

50 Editions that included some pages of abstract ornament colouring as a warm‑up before progressing to more familiar animal and toy designs were available in the United States market in the years around 1900. This can be observed in publications such as (McLaughlin, 1890s?). An examination of the Huntington Library’s Diana Korzenik Collection of Art Education Ephemera (<https://hdl.huntington.org/digital/collection/p9539coll1>) reveals that the introduction of simple geometric forms for ornamental drawing in American educational print was influenced by the industrial drawing movement in Massachusetts (intended for children who had to become factory workers), most notably by William N. Bartholomew (Stankiewich, Amburgy & Bolin, 2004). Even though his designs could be sometimes coloured, it is clear that they were designed for drawing instruction as just its first quick step. The most prominent presence of abstract coloured ornament in the late 19th century US educational print is that in the samples for paper application and weaving (explicitly presented at one of the covers as created “to keep busy the little hands and little head”). One should note that the first full page of outlines for colouring in The “Little Folks” Painting Nook (1878) included several elements with basic geometrical patterns (squares, stripes and circles). Artists in the most copies of this page that I have seen opted out not to elaborate the pattern potential of those elements, preferring to fill them completely in the same colour.

51 Other early examples of abstract ornament colouring books I am aware of are Hoe Daan Hoeksema’s De leukste versjes uit de ouwe doos (ca. 1924), Pierre Belvès’ L’Art Paysan published in 1947 by Flammarion; the 1965 Fancher and McCurdy’s Kaleidoscope Colouring Book for Advanced Colourers; Robert Lips’ “Globi Malbuch” series from the late 1960s, and the Ensor Holiday’s “Altair Design” series published since the early 1970s.

52 Cf. the description of the copy of a 1970s edition sold at Abebooks by the Smith Family Bookstore Downtown (Eugene, OR) in August 2023: “text has two geometric designs with neat colouring, one filled in, the other has one spot filled in”.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Image 1. – Unknown artist, Colouring of L.‑M. Boutet de Monvel’s illustration to E. Dupuis’ poem Printemps in St Nicolas (1883).16
Crédits Fonds Heure joyeuse, Médiathèque Françoise Sagan, Paris.Source: <gallica.bnf.fr> / BnF.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 156k
Titre Image 2. – “Can a lying, sleeping, or lifeless body tell a story?” (Sironi & Scarabottolo, 2023: 22–23).
Crédits A copy from a private collection. Photo A. Kostin.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 138k
Titre Images 3–5. – Albums from Monrocq Brothers’ Colouris amusants series, 1900’s.
Crédits Source: <gallica.bnf.fr> / BnF.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 514k
Titre Images 6–7. – “What are these Mushlings dreaming about?” (Kay Norman, 2022); E. Bart. (?), Colouring of a page in Grozdova (1947) with an illustration by Vera Kiesewalter (?),26 1948.
Crédits Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 231k
Titre Image 8. – Some coloured 1910’s–1920’s postcards.
Crédits Private collection. Photos: Andrei Kostin.28
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 154k
Titre Images 9–11. – Lena L., Colouring of (Comtesse de Ségur, 2016), fragments (around 2017).
Crédits Private collection.36
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 804k
Titre Images 12. – Unknown artist, The Book for Colouring, postcard, early 1960s (?), published by the Izdatelstvo khudozhestvennoj bazy (Budapest).
Crédits Private collection.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 118k
Titre Image 13. – Unknown artist (different from that of pictures 15–16), Colouring of A. Bazhenov’s illustration in Mikhalkov & Bazhenov (1966), fragment.
Crédits Private collection.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 121k
Titre Image 14. – Unknown artist. Colouring of S. Tsiporin’s illustration in Prokofieva, Rein & Tsiporin (1966).
Crédits Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 145k
Titre Image 15. – Unknown artist, Colouring of M. Mezheninov’s illustration in Shim & Mezheninov (1969).
Crédits Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 140k
Titre Image 16. – Unknown artist, Colouring of I. Rublev’s illustration in Rublev (1967).
Crédits Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 107k
Titre Images 17–18. – Unknown artist, Colouring of A. Bazhenov’s illustrations in Mikhalkov & Bazhenov (1966), fragments.
Crédits Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 252k
Titre Images 19–20. – Kate Greenaways’s illustrations in Greenaway (1878: 11), fragments.
Crédits Source: <https://girlsandboysinstoryland.wordpress.com> / Exeter Central Library.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-13.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 176k
Titre Images 21–22. – Unknown artists, Colouring of Kate Greenaways’s illustrations in Greenaway (1878: 11), fragment.
Crédits Source: <archive.org> / University of California Libraries.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-14.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 107k
Titre Image 23. – Unknown artist, Colouring of Kate Greenaways’s illustrations in Greenaway (1881: 11), fragment.
Crédits Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-15.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 77k
Titre Image 24. – Unknown artist, Colouring of Kate Greenaways’s illustrations in Greenaway (1878: 11), fragment.
Crédits Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-16.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 66k
Titre Image 25. – Tableau no 16, “Tapis des lampes”, from A. Legrand’s L’art de broder (1829?).
Crédits Source: <gallica.bnf.fr> / BnF.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-17.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 125k
Titre Image 26. – Model and colouring by unknown artist of the first spread in McLaughlin (1890s?).
Crédits Author’s photo of author’s personal copy.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-18.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 119k
Titre Image 27. – Cover, model, instruction and partially coloured off‑line of Persits & Rusiaeva (1939).
Crédits Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-19.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 156k
Titre Image 28. – A spread from Khudatov (1972).
Crédits The Russian National Library. Photo: A. Kostin.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-20.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 120k
Titre Image 29. – Unknown artist, Colouring of Sauk and Fox (Woodland) and Navajo (Southwest) designs from Kennedy (1971).
Crédits Private collection. Photo: A. Kostin.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/docannexe/image/19309/img-21.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 143k
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Référence électronique

Andrei Kostin, « The Story at the Point of a Crayon: Outlines for the Comparative and Historical Study of Narrative in Colouring Books »ILCEA [En ligne], 53 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 février 2024, consulté le 26 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/19309 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ilcea.19309

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Andrei Kostin

Chercheur associé à l’ILCEA4, Univ. Grenoble Alpes, 38000 Grenoble, France
a.al.kostin@gmail.com

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