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Stop, Look, & Don't Think: Why Adults Need Picture Books In 2017
Sarah Bee , July 27th, 2017 11:58

From retro-kid parody to colouring books, Sarah Bee explains why the simple visual is vital in times of intense stress – and why the dismissive should put a dummy in it

If you're an adult alive at this point in history, you probably realise you're having your intelligence insulted almost all the time. It's the overarching context of your life now. You exist under the dome (or 'd'oh!-m) from The Simpsons Movie. There's a centrifugal force of stupidity emanating from the burgeoning Brexit disaster, forever throwing you out from any attempt to engage with it seriously. And you can't read a transcript of a Trump speech without feeling your brain gently soften, like gnocchi in a boiling pan of doom.

You know it's not supposed to be like this, and it makes you deeply uncomfortable. So you find ways to cope. You read everything you can by the most eloquent and best-informed people, and when that becomes too much, you find some way to switch off. You might watch something trashy, or read something flimsy. Or you might read something with very few words in it, or not read something without any words in it, something that requires nothing of you besides some colouring-in. You might frown and stick your tongue out while you're doing that, like some kind of ridiculous giant five-year-old. Then you might go back to the internet and read something that says you're actually what's wrong with everything somehow, which will be the biggest insult to your intelligence and everyone else's you've seen all day.

Images are a natural antidote to the demanding armies of words that occupy our brains. The internet provides these, of course – puppies, porn, the swathes of DeviantArt which aim to synthesise the appeal of both – but we need time away from screens. Our attention spans are shot and we're tired in at least 11 different ways. We need books of pictures.

The adult colouring book trend has exploded unexpectedly all over the book market and left publishers picking bits of rainbow pencil out of their eyebrows. Twelve million of them were sold in 2015, featuring everything from intricate geometric patterns to just a load of owls. This is where commentators scrape the bottom of the outrage barrel, and do their best to paint it black. The new nadir has been found, and it makes emoji look like the complete works of e e cummings. Rejoice!

Not that there isn't something embarrassing about this. It's annoying in the way that only purely harmless things can be, and as a writer of books with at least some words in them, I could easily seethe. But it seems self-evident what this activity could do for a fried mind, if only for an hour. It's completely ambient entertainment. There's no narrative, just frames to fill however you like, with the gentle yet firm guidance of existing lines. There's no peril, no moral, and no pressure, as there is with a terrifying blank page (or a filled one).

That kind of gentle absorption in an activity doesn't provoke any sort of regression: it gives you breathing space, lets you reboot to face the onslaught of the next bullshit, allows you room to think about creating something yourself. It'll put you into the kind of flow state where all the good stuff happens – the real work. The other stuff you do is toil, whether you do it in the fields or in a kitchen or at a desk with a weird faux-gonomic chair, and you need something more than that.

It's easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to things that are considered 'childish'. A load of good stuff, facilities and functions we develop early and need throughout our lives, ends up in that patronising bin: wonder, emotion, silliness, kindness. The right often annex maturity wholesale for themselves, assert sole guardianship of adulthood: how often have you heard someone smirk that you'll surely become a Tory “when you grow up”? The real world is theirs and everything that's in it: the left are just dippy, idealistic perma-children. But when's the last time anyone claiming to represent these mythic grown-ups had anything wise, useful or humane to say to you?

In the o-what-has-become-of-us stakes, a new-found predilection for pictures hardly moves the needle at all. These things don't need to be any more than what they are – healthy distractions, a different sort of mental and emotional nutrient. You don't have to have your intellect jacked to hell all the time. Have a day off. Have a chocolate milk. Do you want a curly straw? Then have a damn curly straw. You are master of your own deal. This isn't a slippery slope to the adult ball pool if you don't want it to be.

Carving out mental space for yourself isn't immature, anti-social or solipsistic – it's necessary if you're going to make any sort of meaningful contribution to the world. It's vital if you want to exist without collapsing in the adult realm: a place we have no choice but to inhabit. There are limited outlets available for this, so you take the ones that seem to speak to you.

Immaturity is a destructive force, but it isn't necessarily what you think it is. Maturity-immaturity is one of the many false binaries (just like right-left, so carelessly deployed above) that is no longer relevant. Of course we're going to exclaim “oh you fucking child” when Donald Trump behaves petulantly. But he isn't a child, he's a 71-year-old narcissist. There's certainly no shortage of inexcusable incompetence among our leaders: these are adults who are severely deficient in important ways, who couldn't command the respect of a class of nose-picking pre-teens. But they're not kids, they're inadequate adults, abdicating their responsibility, and should be identified as such. No one gets to excuse the 39-year-old Donald Trump Jr on the basis that he is “a kid”. So you expend some energy on discarding the notion that these people can be forgiven for the things they're doing, and then you go and colour in some leaves, because you have earned it, and leaves are pretty, and you have all the nice greens.

2017 – like 2016 before it, but much more so – feels like a year-long slow-motion montage of humanity's worst hits, a metacynical fucky-go-round of all that we have become and are forced to acknowledge. The innocence in us is more fragile and essential than ever, and the only thing to do is try to protect it. You can't hope to make sense of the sheer monstrousness of the now without stepping back one way or another. There's retreating mindlessly into the thumbsucking happy places of childhood, and then there's simply using the tools you've acquired over the entirety of your lifetime to stay sane.

In any case, adults who buy colouring books or picture books for themselves will buy other books too. Spending some of your time on colouring as you hurtle deathwards doesn't mean you can't also chew your way through the complete Karl Ove Knausgård if you want. Even if the odd person cracks, cancels their New York Times subscription and retreats fully into a land of crayoned animals, well, they're doing zero harm and can carry the fuck on as far as I'm concerned. The more that the insanity of the world blooms, the more mature such a response becomes, and the more political it seems. Take your copy of Where The Wild Things Are under the stairs forever. The forces of darkness are massing. Build a fucking fort.

Sarah Bee's Brexit picture book 'Will Of The People' is now funding on Kickstarter here, until 11am on Friday 28th July. Will tweets at @WillMeansBrexit.