There’s a huge mistake that new language learners tend to make.
Do you know what that is?
We try to run before we can crawl.
Unreasonably high expectations about language progress lead to unnecessary failure, disappointment, frustration.
They’re a major reason why some people abandon their language studies.
Newcomers to the German language should not expect to tackle the collected works of Goethe in the first weeks and months. Rather, dial down your expectations and give children’s books a chance!
Why Children’s Books are Great for German Learners
It is all too common to find language learners trying their skills out with material which is not made for their level. Sure, they may be feeling confident after learning German idioms, slang, and proverbs. They may be well on their way to German fluency, but there is no real “fast lane” to master German literature. Instead of gradually increasing comprehension, they attempt to read Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” after two weeks half-hardheartedly studying vocabulary.
If you are just getting started and select reading material which causes your to reach for the dictionary at every second, you will get exhausted and unwilling to continue reading practice. A much smarter approach is to progressively increase the difficulty by using material which is just a little above what you know.
For this reason, children’s books are an awesome place to start for most new German learners. While they might not be what you would usually read, there are a number of advantages to reading books intended for a much younger audience:
1. They are easy
Books for children are intended for a group of people who just started out learning the language. Think you can identify with that? As a consequence these books use easy vocabulary and simple language so as not to overwhelm first-time readers.
2. They are meant for native speakers
Children in Germany actually grow up with these books. This is where they get some of their early words and sense of word order from. If it works for them, it can’t be bad for you, right?
3. They are meant to be read out loud
Especially the ones for the really young are intended to be read out loud by parents. You can take advantage of this and read them out loud to yourself. That way you combine working on your reading skills with pronunciation exercise.
4. They are often very repetitive
Books for younger children frequently repeat sentences over and over. This is good news for beginners as it means you will automatically practice the same words and grammatical structures again and again like you would with a rote repetition study approach.
Where to find children’s books in German
The big question is where to find these books. If you are not living in a German-speaking country, you won’t always find a library carrying children’s books in your target language. Luckily there are a number of online resources where you can even score some for free.
- Amazon.de – The German version of Amazon carries a wide range of books for young people, from toddlers to teenagers. International shipments make it possible to purchase them outside of Germany. Many are also available in electronic form, so if you own a Kindle you can have books delivered within seconds anywhere in the world. Plus, there is even a number of e-books available for free.
- Cildrenslibrary.org – The International Children’s Library is a foundation which provides access to the best children’s literature from around the world. As of this writing there are 80 German books available on the site which you can read online right away.
- Gutenberg.org – Project Gutenberg collects books with expired copyrights or which have become part of the public domain for others reasons and makes them available in e-book form. While the site itself is not entirely easy to use, German newspaper “Der Spiegel” started their own collection of Gutenberg-certified works. You can find the fairy tale section here.
- ChildrensBooksForever.com – This is a site by children’s books author Hans Wilhelm. He provides out-of-print editions of his and other books as free downloads in PDF form. What’s more, since his books have been translated into multiple languages, you can read the English and the German versions side by side.
15 Great German Children’s Books for Beginners
Now that you know how to find them, below is a list of children’s books in German which are excellent for learners in order of difficulty. You can move from one level to the next and gradually ramp up your reading skills.
Not all of these books are actually by German authors but all of them are have been translated and become an integral part of growing up for children in Germany. Therefore if you read these books, you get a cultural education at the same time.
Recognize this colorful little character? This book is the German version of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle. It is a classic in waiting rooms of pediatrician offices. Due to the very repetitive content, it is most suited for people who have just started out learning German. In my opinion the German title is actually better than the original. Nimmersatt (“never satiated”) is definitely a great word to drop in front of a German friend who won’t stop eating.
This book is the story of a nameless animal and its search for an identity. Since its publication in 1972 it has sold almost a million copies and has been translated into many other languages. While it uses very easy vocabulary, the book is told in the form of rhymes, presenting a bit more of a challenge to readers.
The books by author Janosch are favorites among children and adults alike. The stories are heartwarming, the illustrations adorable, and the books contain more text than the examples above. There was also an accompanying TV series of which many episodes can be found on YouTube.
The book series of farmer Petterson and his cat Findus by Swedish author Sven Nordqvist has been translated into 44 languages, German being among them. So far there are nine stories about the pair, which are slightly more elaborate and therefore told in longer text passages. Ideal for learners with a basic understanding of German.
I know Hotzenplotz is a hard word to pronounce, but don’t be put off by that. This story is another classic of German literature for children and has been turned into several movies. While it still contains a lot of illustrations, it is the first book on this list which does not rely on imagery for storytelling but instead would also work as a text-only version.
The stories about the Sams, a wondrous and loud creature which can grant wishes, and its adoptive father Herr Taschenbier is in the same category as “Räuber Hotzenplotz.” Images enhance the understanding, however, this is a real book. If you can finish it, you are probably ready for German middle school. And if you like it, there are six more books where this one came from.
Otfried Preußler is the author of several successful books for children of various ages. Two of his works made it on this list. “Das kleine Gespenst” describes the story of little ghost who wants to see daylight but can’t seem to stay awake. It is a very cute story which was also turned into a movie in 2013.
The eponymous little witch wants to earn the respect of the other witches so she will be allowed to fly with them on Walpurgis night. Although the story might sound infantile to grown-up ears, the language is actually quite demanding and should not be underestimated. The book, also by Otfried Preußler, has been translated into 47 languages and made it to TV screens even in Japan.
The full name of this book “Der satanarchäolügenialkohöllische Wunschpunsch” features the probably longest adjective ever invented in the German language. It was written by Michael Ende and tells the story of a cat and a raven who try to prevent a pair of evil magicians from creating a potion which grants wishes (Wunschpunsch) for their evil purposes. The story takes place entirely on New Year’s eve from about 5:00 P.M. to midnight. Definitely worth reading!
Now we are getting into the realm of what can be considered as children’s novels. The stories about Jim Knopf and his friend Lukas are among the most successful books for young people in Germany. Millions of children have read about them and watched the accompanying TV series. Written in post-war Germany, the book contains a lot Nazi imagery turned on its head and comments on such issues as English colonialism.
Astrid Lindgren’s novels about Pippi Longstockings are as popular in Germany as they are allover the world. Generations have grown up with the adventures of the world’s strongest girl and her friends. Apart from “Pippi Langstrumpf,” Lindgren authored a wide range of other books for children which make for equally good reading material.
This is the second book by Michael Ende on this list (the other one being “Jim Knopf”). “Momo” is a fantasy novel about the concept of time in modern societies. The book criticizes consumerism and the stress of modern life. Published in 1973, it foreshadowed the time deprivation which is reality for most people today. It is also a darn good read.
No list of German literature for children would be complete without author Erich Kästner. The story of Emil and his detective friends is set in pre-war Berlin, offering an interesting glimpse into German history. Kästner’s works are classics in Germany’s youth literature and several of them have been turned into movies.
The “Inkheart” trilogy is among the most contemporary books on this list. It is the story of a girl whose family has the gift to make characters from stories come alive by reading books out loud. It is a love letter to words and writing and their ability to create entire worlds for the reader. The book was also turned into a major motion picture.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the story of the young English wizard is one of the most popular children’s books in Germany. It is enjoyed by young and old alike. If you have graduated to reading an entire book of this series, you are well on your way to mastering German. Plus, the fact that you probably have already read the series makes it easier to get into.
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