Reading in French can lead you to a whole new world.
The road to stellar comprehension can be tricky, but all you really need is the desire to learn.
Curiosity will take you leagues farther than rote memorization and formal classroom time.
I still remember when, one day in my French theater class, I was the only student who knew the answer to our professor’s challenging question.
12 of us were studying in Versailles, and our French professor was a local. She seemed to think that I wasn’t very smart because I was the only student willing to ask questions when all of us were confused.
But that day, when we read a few scenes in class, I was the only one who recognized the pivotal moment between the two main characters. I wasn’t just reading French and understanding the text. Thanks to my constant curiosity and questioning, I got deeper into the language and properly understood the subtext.
That day, a whole new world of literature opened up to me.
The Benefits of Reading French Books
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.
Frequently, the overall context clues will help you understand new vocabulary, just like you learn new vocabulary naturally while reading in your native language.
Reading French books can also offer insights 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 into 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.
Of course, it’s not the end of the world if you forget to bring your book, since there are other ways of getting some reading practice in. Take the bilingual subtitles on FluentU, as an example.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
By having FluentU on your phone, you can read French anytime, anywhere! Plus, the built-in dictionary makes your reading practice as convenient as possible, since you don’t have to spend time manually looking up definitions.
For more information on the app, check out the free FluentU trial.
Finally, if you ever loved the English translation of a French book, you’ll definitely want to read the original. Even the best translation will lose some of the original context or color of the original French.
But what French books are good for beginners? Everyone loves Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” but that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for a beginning French student. Check out these options to jumpstart your French reading!
5 French Books for Beginners That Won’t Bore You to Death
The French Translation of Your Favorite English Book
Forget everything I just said about why you should read books in their original language. 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.
I can understand why you might be wary to read the French translation of an English book. Does it feel like cheating, perhaps? If the French can read translations of English books, English speakers can too!
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.
“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.
French comics are a great way to ease your way into French reading. Not too many words are on each page, so you won’t be overwhelmed by too much French. Plus the pictures will assist in your comprehension, meaning you won’t have to look up as much vocabulary.
There isn’t enough space in this article to provide an overview of all the Tintin comics. You can find entire books of commentary on “Les Aventures de Tintin,” though, if you want to learn more.
Otherwise, 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”
An alternative to reading French comics is to read French short stories. 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. It’s part of his short story collection “Contes du jour et de la nuit” (Stories of Day and of Night).
The original publication of “Contes du jour et de la nuit” includes 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.
Maupassant’s short stories are particularly enjoyable to read, especially if you like plot twists.
“Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mère l’Oye”
Another short story collection for French beginners is one quite famous in America. 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:
- La belle au bois dormant (The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood)
- Le petit chaperon rouge (Little Red Riding Hood)
- La Barbe bleüe (Blue Beard)
- Le Maistre Chat, ou le Chat Botté (The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots)
- Les Fées (The Fairies)
- Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre (Cinderella, or the Glass Slipper)
- Riquet à la Houppe (Ricky of the Tuft)
- Le petit Pouçet (Little Thumb)
I am a HUGE fan of fairy tales, as in, I read them all year long. 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.
Again, by reading stories in French that you already know, you’ll pick up new vocabulary more easily thanks to context clues.
“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.
Coming in at less than 150 pages, “Le Scaphandre et le Papillon” is a good length for French beginners. The story is easy to understand and is told with fairly straightforward language.
Which French Book for Beginners Will You Read First?
With so many exciting French books before you, the only difficult choice will be choosing which one to read first!
Who says learning French has to be boring? Pick up one of these books and be entertained while you learn.
Brita Long is a freelance writer and copywriter who dreams of returning to Paris, her first love. Tweet at her (@belle_brita) in French or read her other musings on life at bellebrita.com.
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