The Essential Guide to Learning Japanese with Children’s Picture Books
What was your favorite picture book when you were a kid?
Now that you’re studying Japanese from the ground up, wouldn’t it be great to have something as simple as a picture book that could help you make leaps of progress?
Japanese 絵本 (えほん — picture book[s]) might be written for kids, but they’re fantastic study tools for beginner to lower-intermediate Japanese learners.
In this post, we’ll look at the five best Japanese children’s books, the benefits of using 絵本 and how to use them to study.
- 1. ぐりとぐら (“Guri and Gura”)
- 2. しろくまちゃんのほっとけーき (“Shirokuma-chan’s Pancakes”)
- 3. だるまちゃんとてんぐちゃん (“Little Daruma and Little Tengu”)
- 4. かいけつゾロリシリーズ (The “Kaiketsu Zorori” Series)
- 5. 美しい数学シリーズ (The “Utsukushii Suugaku” Series)
- Why Use Japanese Picture Books to Practice Japanese Reading?
- A Simple Method for Learning Japanese from 絵本
1. ぐりとぐら (“Guri and Gura”)
ぐりand ぐら are two mice who come across a huge egg during their travels.
Naturally, this gives them the idea to make a gigantic cake that will last a long time!
First published in 1963, ぐりとぐら is arguably the best-known Japanese children’s picture book.
Chances are high that any Japanese person you meet will have read it—or will at least have heard of it. It’s been translated into several languages and was eventually spun off into a full-on series of 絵本.
2. しろくまちゃんのほっとけーき (“Shirokuma-chan’s Pancakes”)
If you like pancakes and adorable bears, then しろくまちゃんのほっとけーき should be right up your alley.
The tale is simple: little Shirokuma asks his mother to make pancakes for him, and then she does!
しろくまちゃんのほっとけーき is an excellent book for learning onomatopoeia.
Part of the book is devoted to the sounds of the mother cooking the pancakes. Lots of cool vocabulary is introduced!
3. だるまちゃんとてんぐちゃん (“Little Daruma and Little Tengu”)
Two traditional Japanese characters—the Daruma and the Tengu—are made cute and fun in this children’s classic.
Little Daruma-chan is envious of Tengu-chan’s possessions, like his 扇子 (せんす — fan) and his 下駄 (げた — wooden clogs).
Daruma-chan’s father—trying to make him feel better—does his best to scrounge up these things for his son but is not always successful.
だるまちゃんとてんぐちゃん became such a successful book series that it has also been published in English.
4. かいけつゾロリシリーズ (The “Kaiketsu Zorori” Series)
Zorori is a fox and a wanted criminal whose only ambition is to become the world’s greatest prankster.
He travels from place to place with this goal in mind, but his mischievous ways often get him and his friends into trouble.
The かいけつゾロリ series—as of when I’m writing this—is comprised of over 50 titles.
That being said, it’s hard to recommend just one. Don’t worry, though. Any one of them is an excellent place to start.
The books are full of humor since Zorori himself often speaks in crazy Japanese だじゃれ (puns).
5. 美しい数学シリーズ (The “Utsukushii Suugaku” Series)
Another famous series loved by both children and adults alike is the 美しい数学 (うつくしいすうがく) series.
The books in this series are famous for their simple stories, gorgeous artwork and unique ability to subtly stoke a love of numbers in those who read them—even the most math-resistant!
These are great books to build your vocabulary and skills with the Japanese number system.
Among the titles in this series, 壺の中 (つぼのなか — “Anno’s Mysterious Multiplying Jar”) is particularly well-regarded for its amazing pictures.
Why Use Japanese Picture Books to Practice Japanese Reading?
Reading these books can improve some key skill areas, but you’ll need to identify them to target them.
They’re artistic, creative and entertaining.
It’s akin to watching Japanese anime shows and reading manga to study Japanese.
絵本 typically features かわいい (cute) characters, many of which are totally bonkers!
For example, a book I read with my daughter recently called ほっぺおばけ (cheek ghosts) is about ghosts who dine on people’s cheeks! Because Japanese 絵本 are so light and fun, reading them feels less like “study” and more like educational leisure time.
They can improve your pronunciation and reading speed.
Because 絵本 are generally written for children who are just getting accustomed to the Japanese language, they focus heavily on natural rhythm and intonation as well as tricky sounds for kids, like ちゃ and っ.
They feature shorter sentences and emphasize key content words.
Content words are 名詞 (めいし — nouns) and 動詞 (どうし — verbs).
This makes it easier for you to skim to get the main idea.
Skimming is a skill that will come in handy as your Japanese develops and you tackle things like 漫画 (まんが — comics) and the JLPT.
The only potential drawback is that 絵本 are usually written in ひらがな (Hiragana). If you’re looking to improve your reading speed while also reinforcing your basic 漢字 (かんじ — Kanji) recognition, you may want to look elsewhere.
This blog post is a great place to begin your search for kanji learning resources.
They’re great for boosting basic Japanese vocabulary.
絵本 use common words and phrases essential for achieving fluency in everyday Japanese. They’re a great way to fill in any gaps in your basic vocabulary.
You’ll learn more about Japanese society and culture.
Reading Japanese 絵本 will help boost your cultural knowledge in various ways. 絵本 often center around fundamentals of Japanese culture, which their main readers—kids—need to know about.
They might be legends, characters, places or even aspects of society, such as 和 (わ — harmony, friendship).
There are also picture book versions of classic Japanese stories called 昔話 (むかしばなし — folk tales).
These stories are still read and loved by Japanese people of all generations. Knowing them will help you better relate to your Japanese friends or language exchange partners!
A Simple Method for Learning Japanese from 絵本
- Skim the book first. Read it as silently and quickly as you can. Try to focus on the most important words in the sentences. If you run into words you don’t know, don’t stop to look them up! Power through and do your best to understand the main idea.
- Read it again out loud. This helps you make sure you understood the story right the first time. This is also very good for pronunciation practice. Focus on getting your pronunciation, rhythm and intonation correct. Pause only where appropriate. And don’t be afraid to go back over sentences that were hard—repetition is essential for building fluency!
- Record yourself reading. One good tip that has worked for me is to record myself reading the book, play it back a few times, take note of my pronunciation and then try again.
- Take note of any new words or phrases. There may be a lot of new vocabulary words for you, depending on the book’s difficulty. It’s not necessary to remember them all. Just focus on the essentials—the ones you’ll most likely use or see again. Record the words in a notebook or app on your phone and review them until you’ve internalized them. Take it a step further by writing your own sentences and repeating them out loud!
- Reread the book when you can. Another wonderful thing about 絵本 is that they’re relatively short. You can read them anytime you want. So, after you’ve gone through the steps above, return to the book. This is a great way to review your new words and build confidence. Note how much faster and smoother you can read the story compared to the first time.
With these five titles, you’ll be well on your way to more fluent Japanese reading.
If you’re looking for more books, 絵本ナビ/ehonNavi is the best place to start. It’s an online picture book retailer based in Japan with tens of thousands of 絵本 in its catalog. You can do 試し読み (ためしよみ)—sample reading sessions—for free.
And if you want to supplement your Japanese reading with entertaining videos, FluentU has tons of authentic Japanese content with interactive subtitles. These let you hover over new words to see their meanings, pronunciations, example sentences and more while you watch.
Now all that’s left to do is start reading!