15 Best Books for French Learners from Budding Beginners to Advanced Bookworms
When you start reading in French, it’s good to start easy.
But what about after that?
The road to fluency is paved with books in French that you can read for learning and pleasure!
Check out 15 French books for beginner, intermediate and advanced learners that’ll advance your French skills in a highly entertaining way.
- Easy French Books for Beginners
- Best French Books for Intermediate Learners
- Challenging French Books for Advanced Learners
- “Un soir au club” by Christian Gailly
- “L’Amant” by Marguerite Duras
- “Pietr-le-Letton” by Georges Simenon
- “Adolphe” by Benjamin Constant
- “Extension du domaine de la lutte” by Michel Houellebecq
- “Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes” by Jacqueline Harpman
- “Les Yeux jaunes des crocodiles” by Katherine Pancol
- “Paroles” by Jacques Prévert
- Bonus: Read the French Translation of Your Favorite English Book
- Why Reading in French Is Crucial
Easy French Books for Beginners
“Les aventures de Tintin”
“Les Aventures de Tintin” (The Adventures of Tintin) is a wildly popular 20th-century comic about a Belgian reporter and his pet dog, Snowy. With writing that overlaps a variety of genres (adventure, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, political thriller, social commentary), you can find a comic to suit your tastes. “Les Aventures de Tintin” can be enjoyed by French readers of all ages.
I recommend starting with the third comic, “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. Who doesn’t want to read adventurous historical fiction? Just note that some characters take on racist caricatures, a reflection of the contemporary values of that time.
“Contes du jour et de la nuit”
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 his short story collection “Contes du jour et de la nuit” (Stories of Day and of Night). Maupassant’s short stories are particularly enjoyable to read, especially if you like plot twists.
The original publication of “Contes du jour et de la nuit” is composed of 21 short stories, although later editions include additional tales. While taking three weeks to read a book can result in losing track of complicated plots or many characters, reading just one short story a day is different. Each short story has its own plot and set of characters, so you start fresh with each new tale.
“Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mère l’Oye”
You probably know Charles Perrault’s “Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mère l’Oye” (Stories or Tales from Times Past, with Morals: Tales of Mother Goose) from the many famous Disney versions.
This collection of French fairy tales includes stories you’re sure to be familiar with, “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 (versions of Cinderella, for example, can be found in cultures all over the world), his interpretations quickly became classics.
“Le scaphandre et le papillon”
While not as well-known as the other books on the list, “Le Scaphandre et le Papillon” (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is also appropriate for French beginners.
Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote his memoirs after suffering a major stroke and developing locked-in syndrome. With this condition, almost his entire body was paralyzed, but his mental faculties remained completely intact. Even with these limitations, Bauby dictated the entire work to his transcriber by blinking his left eye.
Bauby’s memoirs primarily describe his life prior to his stroke, when he served as editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine. However, he also wrote about his life with locked-in syndrome.
Best French Books for Intermediate Learners
“Bonjour tristresse” by Françoise Sagan
It’s difficult to find a comparison for Sagan in English-language literature. My mother, who lived in France in the sixties, 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 retains the fast pacing and quick gratification of a romance novel, but reads more like a soap opera condensed into novel form, and draws you in with charisma and personality.
“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.
Every native English speaker learning French at some point encounters doubts as to whether what they’re doing is really useful. For this reason, you may find Vargas comforting. She 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.
“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 a famous novelist, Prétextat Tach, who is dying.
Tach, an obese, misogynistic monster of a man, is an unpleasant yet highly entertaining character. He makes a game of avoiding questions about his personal life and driving away his interviewers, among whom a contest develops to see who can dig up any interesting information on the novelist.
The interactions between Tach and the interviewers make for fast and absorbing reading, and the mystery developing around Tach’s past and personality will keep you glued to the page.
Challenging French Books for Advanced Learners
“Un soir au club” by Christian Gailly
I had to include at least one French piano drama. If you continue to read in French or watch French movies, you’ll find a lot of stories in which some part of the plot hinges on a character’s ability or inability to play the piano. File this away for further investigation as you progress.
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” reads like hot jazz and quickly draws you in with its seductive pace. Gailly often uses short sentence fragments for emphasis, which helps direct the reader’s attention to grammar and phrasing.
“L’Amant” by Marguerite Duras
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. As in the case of Gailly’s “Un soir au club,” Duras often repeats words and events, which is good for poetic effect and great for learning.
“Pietr-le-Letton” by Georges Simenon
This novel by Simenon introduces Commissaire Maigret, who appears in many more novels and stories. By many, I mean more than a hundred. So if you develop a taste for following Maigret through his methodical, character-rich investigation processes, you’ll have taken on an excellent habit for your French learning.
The prose in this novel is still a little rough compared to the easy, relaxed pace Simenon developed in later works, but it familiarizes you with Maigret and Simenon in a story that takes the detective through a variety of locales in different social strata.
“Adolphe” by Benjamin Constant
This classic is a sparse moral and psychological drama. The story 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 main character, who is highly self-analytical.
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.
“Extension du domaine de la lutte” by Michel Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq has become a highly controversial figure in France for writing characters with questionable social views and making offensive statements. Despite that, he’s someone to be aware of if you have any interest in contemporary French culture and literature.
Houellebecq is a solid writer who can fill out your vocabulary on modern subjects such as dating, social politics, and the workplace.
This is his first novel, and it encompasses and riffs on the dreariness of day-to-day societal existence in a way that comes across like Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club” as told by Bill Hicks, but with a lot more French.
“Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes” by Jacqueline Harpman
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 older women imprisoned in an undisclosed underground location, the reader is introduced to a world that’s like this one but also distinctly different. 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 a dream for any speculative-fiction-loving French learner.
“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 modern French family who follow separate ambitions and interests 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 when you’re not reading, and motivate you to get through the more difficult parts to find out what happens to them.
“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 your French even if translation isn’t something in which you have a particular interest.
Bonus: Read the French Translation of Your Favorite English Book
If you’ve already read your favorite book in English, then you already know the important nuances of the author’s original writing. You know the meaning behind the text. You know what’s happening.
Now read it in French.
Since you already know the characters and the plot, it’ll be easier for you to figure out any new vocabulary via context cues. If the book is modern, reading it in French will help you learn expressions to use in everyday conversation.
Finally, the biggest benefit will be the motivation to keep reading. Reading a book in a second language is a challenge at any level. With your favorite book, you’ll feel more encouraged to work through any challenging vocabulary.
Why Reading in French Is Crucial
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 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. This contextual dictionary can help you understand how to use the words you encounter as you read in broader contexts.
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
The biggest stumbling block to reading books is vocabulary. But 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.
Reading is also a great way to practice your French on your own time. If you take the train to work, for example, you can read your French book during your commute. 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.
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 continue to 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!