21 Best French Books for Beginners, Intermediate Learners and Advanced Bookworms
Need to practice your French reading skills? Why not read some French books?
Reading books in French will help you recognize things you’ve already learned as well as introduce you to new topics—you might even learn a thing or two about French culture!
Start with easy French books and gradually work your way up to more difficult books to build your fluency.
This post will give you 21 beginner, intermediate and advanced French books to kickstart your reading journey today!
- Easy Books for Beginners
- 1. “Les aventures de Tintin” by Hergé
- 2. “Contes du jour et de la nuit” by Guy de Maupassant
- 3. “Contes de ma mère l’Oye” by Charles Perrault
- 4. “Le scaphandre et le papillon” by Jean-Dominique Bauby
- 5. “Le Petit Nicolas” by René Goscinny
- 6.“L’Étranger” by Albert Camus
- 7. “Calligrammes” by Apollinaire
- 8. “Le Père Goriot” by Honoré de Balzac
- 9. “Contes de la Bécasse” by Guy de Maupassant
- Books for Intermediate Learners
- Books for Advanced Learners
- 14. “Un soir au club” by Christian Gailly
- 15. “L’Amant” by Marguerite Duras
- 16. “Adolphe” by Benjamin Constant
- 17. “Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes” by Jacqueline Harpman
- 18. “Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles” by Katherine Pancol
- 19. “Paroles” by Jacques Prévert
- 20. “Entre les murs” by François Bégaudeau
- 21. “Voyage au bout de la nuit” by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
- Reading Tips for Beginners
- How Reading Improves Your French
Easy Books for Beginners
1. “Les aventures de Tintin” by Hergé
Genre: Action, mystery
This is a wildly popular 20th-century comic about a Belgian reporter and his pet dog, Snowy. With writing that overlaps a variety of genres, it can be enjoyed by French readers of all ages.
I recommend starting with “Tintin en Amérique.” In this comic, Tintin and Snowy are covering a story on organized crime in Chicago.
Naturally, hijinks ensue, involving Al Capone and other gangsters. Just note that some characters take on racist caricatures, a reflection of the contemporary values of that time.
2. “Contes du jour et de la nuit” by Guy de Maupassant
Guy de Maupassant is one of the world’s best writers of short stories. In fact, you probably read at least one translation of his work in your high school English classes.
“La parure” (The Necklace) is arguably Maupassant’s most famous short story, and it’s included in this book. His stories are particularly enjoyable to read, especially if you like plot twists.
I recommend that you read one short story a day. Each short story has its own plot and set of characters, so you start fresh with each new tale.
3. “Contes de ma mère l’Oye” by Charles Perrault
Genre: Fairy tales
You probably know Charles Perrault’s work from the various Disney versions.
This collection of French fairy tales includes stories you’re sure to be familiar with, like “La belle au bois dormant” (The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood), “Le petit chaperon rouge” (Little Red Riding Hood), “Le Maistre Chat, ou le Chat Botté” (The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots) and other classics.
While not all of Perrault’s fairy tales are original to France, his interpretations quickly became classics.
4. “Le scaphandre et le papillon” by Jean-Dominique Bauby
While not as well-known as the other books on the list, “Le Scaphandre et le Papillon” (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is great for French beginners.
Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote this memoir after suffering a major stroke and developing locked-in syndrome.
Almost his entire body was paralyzed, but his mental faculties remained intact, allowing him to continue his work by dictating to his transcriber by blinking his left eye.
Bauby’s memoirs describe his both life prior to and after his stroke, when he served as editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine.
5. “Le Petit Nicolas” by René Goscinny
Genre: Children’s literature
“Le Petit Nicolas” was published in 1959 and is an idealized and nostalgic memory of what it was like to be a kid growing up in France in the 1950s.
Although some aspects may be a bit outdated, the story of growing up is sure to be relatable for everyone.
Nicolas and his many friends have many adventures that build storylines constructed for children, making them easy to follow.
6.“L’Étranger” by Albert Camus
Camus, a Frenchman born in Algeria during the French colonization period, wrote this novel using the voice of Meursault.
Meursault shares the author’s lineage and recounts his mother’s funeral and his subsequent run-in with the law.
He’s a strange, unfamiliar narrator due to his refusal to follow societal norms, presenting a one-dimensional world view.
While Meursault’s thought processes and motivations may be difficult to understand, his words are not—Any student of literature will have an enjoyable time reading the book, as the difficulty here is not in language but interpretation.
7. “Calligrammes” by Apollinaire
For foreign learners of French, Apollinaire’s poems offer hints of meaning in their very structure.
His book is notable for its use of typeface and space on the page to build the poem in a way that evokes its meaning.
Poems in the book are written in such a way that the poem itself takes the shape of its subject.
The poems are some of the earliest French surrealist works—in fact, Apollinaire is credited with coining the term—so poems are somewhat complex, but worth the effort it takes to understand them.
8. “Le Père Goriot” by Honoré de Balzac
Honoré de Balzac wrote 93 novels, plays and short stories, compiled and known as “La Comédie humaine.”
It featured a cast of recurring characters that would pass between stories to create Balzac’s own inter-tangled world.
“Le Père Goriot” is one of the most famous of these works and describes the lives of three men living in a boarding house in 19th century Paris.
Balzac’s style was criticized in his time for being too simple, but that’s exactly what makes it so appropriate for French learners.
Balzac’s attention to detail and keen desire to allow the story to unfold step by step means that the novel is easy to understand.
9. “Contes de la Bécasse” by Guy de Maupassant
Genre: Fiction, short stories
Maupassant became famous near the end of the 19th century as a realist novelist with a style bordering on naturalism.
His “Contes de la Bécasse”, or “Tales of the Woodcock”, is a collection of several stories.
The first is a preamble that explains the premise: the baron of Ravots has organized a dinner during which the guests are asked to tell a story to the rest of the group.
The realism and shorter length of the stories make for an easy read.
Books for Intermediate Learners
10. “Bonjour tristesse” by Françoise Sagan
Genre: Fiction, drama
It’s difficult to find a comparison for Sagan in English-language literature.
My French mother gave me her copy of “Bonjour Tristesse” while shrugging it off as a silly, guilty pleasure.
For this reason, I came to think of it as something along the lines of a trashy romance novel. I was surprised to find it was a lot better than that.
The plot centers on a teenage girl’s relationship with her womanizing father, and how his love life influences and becomes entangled with her own.
It’s still fast paced like a romance novel, but reads more like a soap opera in novel form, and draws you in with charisma and personality.
11. “Coule la Seine” by Fred Vargas
This collection of three mystery stories is a nice sampler to get you acquainted with the French detective Commissaire Adamsberg, who appears in several Vargas novels.
Vargas is a historian who incorporates her knowledge of history into her books, creating rich, eccentric characters who have the education necessary to make her plots play out in a satisfying way.
Vargas creates characters who are armed with unexpected facts that end up applying to real-life situations.
These tendencies are not all fully explored in this collection, but you’ll get an idea of Adamsberg’s personality as well as the charm of the style and characters you’ll find in the novels.
12. “Hygiène de l’assassin” by Amélie Nothomb
This is a strange little book written almost entirely in dialogue.
The story consists of different journalists interviewing famous novelist, Prétextat Tach, an obese and misogynistic man who is dying.
He makes a game of avoiding questions about his personal life and driving away his interviewers, who develop a contest to see who can dig up any interesting information on the novelist.
The interactions between Tach and the interviewers make for fast and engaging reading, and the mystery developing around Tach’s past and personality will keep you glued to the page.
13. “Le jeune homme de sable” by Williams Sassine
Genre: Fiction, African literature
If you’re looking for some gateway advanced reading, this novel offers some characteristics of an advanced French book while still only requiring an intermediate vocabulary.
The first twenty-five pages are in the form of a dream sequence in which strange and haunting imagery is blended with the introduction of several characters.
It’s a good way to dip your toes into the world of advanced French reading and an opportunity to introduce yourself to African Francophone literature!
Books for Advanced Learners
14. “Un soir au club” by Christian Gailly
Genre: Piano drama
If you continue to read in French or watch French movies, you’ll find a lot of stories based on a character’s ability or inability to play the piano.
The protagonist of this drama, Simon Nardis, is a former jazz pianist and alcoholic who had to give up both habits to stay on the straight and narrow.
In a single night, he breaks with years of abstinence and returns to his two loves.
Written in sharp, snappy prose, “Un soir au club” draws you in with its seductive pace. Short sentence fragments are used for emphasis, directing your attention to grammar and phrasing.
15. “L’Amant” by Marguerite Duras
Genre: Fiction, drama
This is a classic that’s part of any basic education in French literature.
Set in French colonial Vietnam, it tells the story of a young girl from a French family who becomes romantically involved with an older Chinese man.
The plot is narrated from the detached point of view of a woman who is now much older and reflecting on the events related.
The writing is hypnotic and simple to read. Duras often repeats words and events, which is good for poetic effect and great for learning.
16. “Adolphe” by Benjamin Constant
This classic is a sparse moral and psychological drama that follows a young man who develops a relationship with an older woman.
Narrated in the first person, “Adolphe” explores all of the inner misgivings and woes of the self-analytical main character.
The prose is mostly limited to Adolphe’s state of mind as well as his interactions with others, so the vocabulary and phrasing are efficient and fairly easy to follow despite the fact that the book was first published in 1816.
17. “Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes” by Jacqueline Harpman
Genre: Science fiction
If I describe this work as an existential, quasi-horror sci-fi novel, I’m speaking accurately but failing to assess its beautiful, haunting singularity.
Narrated by a female character who was raised by a group of imprisoned older women, the reader is introduced to a world that’s both similar and different to our own.
The question of who the women’s captors are and why they’re being held makes the story a mystery as well.
Creepy, imaginative and rife with examples of the first person plural passé simple, Harpman’s novel is great for the French learner.
18. “Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles” by Katherine Pancol
This is the longest and most difficult book on the list, but also one of the most useful for learning French—if you find it intimidating, work your way through a few others first and try coming back to it.
Pancol writes with a light, sympathetic touch about members of a French family who follow separate ambitions while still striving to love and support one another.
The story has the appeal of an addictive television series that will keep you thinking about the characters even when you’re not reading.
19. “Paroles” by Jacques Prévert
If you’ve been studying French for a while, chances are you’ve already come across Prévert’s poetry.
He’s a playful but serious poet, who used simple language and repetition to great effect.
His style has the added bonus of setting aside little isolated blocks of French for you to read, memorize and, if you’re feeling ambitious, translate.
Poetry in general is a great way to try your hand at translation, which will help improve your French (even if translation isn’t something in which you have a particular interest).
20. “Entre les murs” by François Bégaudeau
Genre: Fiction, drama
Based on Bégaudeau’s own experience working in an inner-city Parisian school, this novel is full of language you may have never seen before.
Dialogue occurs frequently and is written to convey the way the kids actually talk, both in terms of slang and phonetic modification.
You’ll often notice an absence of punctuation or consonants mashed closely together, such as v’nir in place of venir or P’t’êt rather than Peut-être.
The narrative style is casual but smart, and Bégaudeau moves quickly between events and characters, never pausing too long for explanation.
21. “Voyage au bout de la nuit” by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Genre: Historical fiction
This is not the sunniest of books, but it is a literary experience and a quintessential French book.
Céline’s style has been highly influential in literature both in France and all over the world, inspiring authors to play with literary formalities.
The novel is based around a young man who gets involved in WWI and travels through Africa and the United States.
You’ll encounter unfamiliar word usage, but this book provides enough context for you to keep up and develop your French comprehension in the process.
Reading Tips for Beginners
- You don’t need to know every single word. Read a section and try to understand what’s happening based on the context. Afterwards, you can look up the meaning of the words you think are absolutely necessary for you to know. This way you’re not wasting too much time and missing the big picture by focusing too much on the small details!
- Read the French translation of your favorite English book. You already know what happens in your favorite book, so by reading it in French you’ll be able to focus more on the language.
- Write down key words or phrases you don’t know and look up their meaning. This will help you learn lots of new vocabulary. You can also turn these phrases into study points or flashcards to review later.
- Say the words out loud as you read. This will help with speaking and pronunciation practice as well as comprehension—how’s that for efficiency!
- Start a book club with other French learners. It can be both fun and educational getting together with other French learners to talk about books you’re reading. You can discuss the plot, grammar points, vocabulary, plus things you’re enjoying (or struggling with).
How Reading Improves Your French
It shows you real examples of the language in use
Reading books helps solidify the material you’ve studied by introducing you to a constant stream of real usage examples. It’s one of the best ways to become fluent.
Similarly, reading is great for improving your grammar, as it allows you to see grammar in context as opposed to just hypothetical examples. If you’re enjoying a book, you’ll absorb the grammar without even thinking about it.
Even something like reading the subtitles to a video is a great way to practice French.
For example, FluentU has authentic French content like music videos and movie clips, which have bilingual subtitles and interactive transcripts.
Read along as you watch the video, and—yep, that’s right—you’ll be getting reading practice while watching the language in natural use.
FluentU also lets you click on any word as a video plays to see its entry in the built-in video dictionary. This will let you see an in-context definition, a memorable image, example sentences and other videos where you can see the word used in the same way.
You can study all the new words you learn as flashcards with personalized typing and speaking exercises. And like reading itself, FluentU is versatile—access the program on the website, the iOS app or the Android app.
It introduces you to new vocabulary words
Reading books that are right for your current level will sharpen and add to your existing vocabulary. You can even learn a lot of words without looking up the definitions, simply through context.
Frequently, the overall context clues will help you understand new vocabulary, just like you learn new vocabulary naturally while reading in your native language.
It offers an insight into French culture
If you choose classic French literature, you can learn about French history and see which books have stood the test of time. If you pick up a modern French novel, you can learn French vocabulary for the latest technology.
You can also discover what themes and subjects matter to the French today.
It’s a great way to practice French on your own time
Keep a French book in your purse or your backpack and read a few pages whenever you have a spare 15 minutes, like while waiting for a doctor’s appointment or on the train to work.
It motivates you to keep learning
Reading books in French is a great way to improve your French abilities. Why limit yourself to stacks of flashcards when you can lose yourself in an exciting work of fiction?
The desire to know what happens next will encourage you to keep reading in French, even if you don’t comprehend every single word.
As you familiarize yourself with French books and authors you’ll add to your cultural knowledge, which will enhance your relationship with the language. You’ll also have fun and give yourself immediate motivation to continue learning French.
With so many exciting French books before you, the only difficult choice will be choosing which one to read first!