Reading in French can feel quite intimidating and if you don’t pick a novel at an appropriate level for you, it will feel overwhelming. If you don’t enjoy it, chances are you will give up but it’s worth making an effort to overcome the first hurdles and to start getting used to reading in French. I’ve curated a short list of contemporary authors and French novels you can start reading at an intermediate level.
In this post, let’s find out the many benefits, like how you will stop translating in your head before you speak, and how to get started.
Choose the books wisely
I’d like to share with you my personal experience with English.
The first book I read was Harry Potter. I assumed it would be easy because it was a children’s book. Well, let me tell you, it’s not that easy! The richness of the vocabulary and of the syntax were a bit challenging. Here I’m not talking about the magical lexicon. This part was fairly easy although I didn’t get all the puns until much later. However, with repeated exposure throughout the first 2 books, I was able to catch up and reach a native secondary school student-level.
After I finished the 3rd or 4th Harry Potter, I needed something else to read while waiting for the next one. I randmoly picked “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris. My, oh my! That was way too advanced for me. Although I was studying political science in English at the time, this was out of my comfort zone. I wasn’t prepared for this level of complexity. And the print was soooo small, reading was very tiring. I finished the book but it was painful.
I became more careful picking my books: large prints, short chapters, simpler language until eventually I became able to read pretty much everything.
You have to let go of your ego and be realistic. Depending on the exposure you’ve had with written French, you might find some books of my list difficult. If that’s the case, maybe switch to graded readers (find some here and here) or children’s books.
Why fairytales and classics are often not the best options to start with
Fairytales are great stories but they’re often written in an old-fashioned French. They contain many outdated words and syntax that even French natives barely understand sometimes. I wouldn’t recommend starting with those unless they’re modern versions written in a more contemporary French.
Older French classics like Victor Hugo, Flaubert, etc are works of art. However some of these masterpiece are considered difficult even by natives. As a consequence I don’t recommend attempting to read them until you reach an advanced level. Make sure you can understand long complex sentences and rich vocabulary in shorter pieces. That’s the reason why I chose to focus on contemporary litterature.
The benefits of reading French novels at an intermediate level
If you like reading in your mother tongue, building up your reading skills in French will eventually bring you tremendous joy and motivation to keep learning. You will also absorb a lot of knowledge and your overall skills will improve.
The benefits in short:
- Learning in context is more efficient
- Exposure to complex syntax to deepen understanding skills
- Repeated exposure to rich vocabulary will expand your knowledge
- Reading fuels your writing skills
- Combine with speaking practice to work on 3 skills
Reading is a slow activity, especially in a language you don’t fully grasp yet. That’s why it’s efficient. You are immersed in a universe and you develop an emotionnal connection to the words and the story. We say that learning in context is key to long-term memorization. Well, this is exactly what you are doing when reading.
You will get used to reading long sentences. You’ll be exposed to complex syntax that you won’t hear much in spoken French. You’ll have time to pause and try to understand. This will happen a lot in the beginning but you’ll get better and this will improve you degree of understanding.
You’ll start to “feel” the language and eventually this will allow you to stop translating in your head.
Of course, repeated exposure to certain words will expand your vocabulary. You’ll start to pick up nuances from the context . You will “get” them even if you’re not able to explain. If you want to become a better writer, you need to become an avid reader. Add speaking practice linked to the book to also improve your speaking skills and develop critical thinking in French.
What kind of books should you read?
Well, obviously, books you enjoy! If you don’t like reading in your mother tongue then don’t force it and pick another activity you enjoy.
Shorter alternatives to novels
If you don’t feel like tackling a full book, maybe read magazines, comic books or short stories to start with.
Read my recommendations for shorter alternatives to get started.
Translations from your mother tongue
When you say you want to read in French, you probably mean you want to read content that was originally written in French. Although that may be the ultimate goal, you may want to start with a translation of a book you’ve read in your mother tongue. Especially if the writing style of the author is straightforward, crisp and clear, in the original version. Admittedly this is a lot easier when the language is rather close to French, like romance languages and even English.
Firstly because the story will be familiar. Secondly because the syntax might be closer to that of your mother tongue than a book written in French. Some translators try to stick to the author’s style as much as they can.
If you have both copies of the book, you can double-check some sentences if you really don’t understand something. The idea is not to stop at every page though… Consider this like your “joker” card and use it avec parcimonie (sparingly).
As a lower intermediate Japanese learner, it helps me a lot to see the translation along to the original sentence. That way I start to understand the syntax and subtelties of the language. In Spanish I can easily get by with a dictionnary. Although I wouldn’t be able to reproduce that level of language, I can understand just fine. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. You need to find your own.
How to enjoy reading even if you don’t understand all the words
Take it slowly
When you start reading in a foreign language, it is taxing for your brain. You won’t be able to keep your concentration level at such a high level for a long time. That’s why you should start with short sessions. Do you enjoy reading before you sleep at the end of the day? Well, you may be too tired to handle French. Perhaps save this moment for a book in your mother tongue.
Read in French when you feel relaxed but not tired. How about taking a short coffee/French book break during the day? As you get used to reading in French, increase the length of your sessions.
Listen to your brain and your body to find the perfect length for your reading sessions.
Adjust your mindset
First, you need to accept that you won’t understand 100% and and you won’t get all the nuances. As you progress, you’ll become able to understand more details.
If you pause at every word to check it in the dictionary, you’ll quickly lose track of the story itself. Reading will become tedious. It needs to remain a fun activity. My advice is to check the words that come back often in the story. Also the ones that seem key to understand what’s going on but not more.
Find the right balance
If you find yourself checking too many words, ask yourself: “Did I really need to know this word to understand the story?”
The answer is no: next time you’re in a similar situation, refrain from opening your dictionary.
The answer is yes, and you’re still not sure you understood the sentence although you’ve researched all the words: the book is probably too advanced for you.
When you don’t enjoy a particular book, it’s ok to put it down and pick another one.
If it’s too difficult, why not make it your goal to progress until you’re able to enjoy it in the future?
In case you find yourself reading easily but you’re trying to expand your vocabulary: write down the words you’d like to check (and the sentence for contexte) and look them up later, when you’re done the chapter for example. Visualize the situation from the book and the words to print them in your memory (association technique).
To start with, using an e-reader or a tablet may help. Many have a built-in dictionary which allows to quickly check the meaning of a word without too much interruption. Some of my students and myself have also been using the “import” feature of the Lingq app. It is particularly useful when you’re trying to build up your vocabulary. It’s handy as you can input your own content including e-books and it features a spaced repetition system.
Watch films + Read novels
Many novels have been adapted into movies. Why not watch the movie (with subtitles) then read the book?
You’ll know the context and the story. Therefore you can focus on dialogues, descriptions and how the plot unfolds in the book compared to the movie.
Recommendations of French novels for intermediate levels and upper intermediate
Order “graded reader” books: classics adapted to suit learners, they’re shorter and use a simpler language while keeping the gist of the story.
The *** in the list indicate my personal favourites.
Albert Camus – L’étranger. (His other books are more complex but in L’étranger, the narrator and main character uses a simple language).
Sempé and Goscinny – Le Petit Nicolas. The narrator and main character tells about his life at home and in primary school (there is also a movie). You can find extracts here.
My personal favourites
*** All the books written by Kim Thuy, you could start with Ru which might be her most famous novel. Don’t expect a classic storyline but her writing is full of poetry and emotions even though the words and syntax are quite simple, which makes them perfect books for intermediate-level learners. I love her straightforward yet delicate tone that softens the sometimes harsh topics she covers. I wonder if this as to do with the fact that her mother tongue is Vietnamese? Her books are usually made of short chapters and inspired by her life as a Vietnamian refugee who came to Canada with her parents when she was a young child. Watch a short interview about Ru here (in English).
*** Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt writes beautiful stories like Oscar et la dame rose and Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (BEST author for lower intermediates!)
*** Muriel Barbery, L’élégance du hérisson. Great story, well written, accessible to motivated intermediate learners . One of the narrators is a teenager so we can all easily relate to her problems even if we don’t know all the words! It’s been translated in English and other languages if you’d like to read side by side. There’s also a movie. Listen to a short extract and comments I posted here.
*** Mathias Malzieu, Maintenant qu’il fait tout le temps nuit sur toi. He’s originally a singer-songwriter and you can definitely hear the music in his words. It’s a novel with a poetic style that’s not pretentious. It’s almost written as if a child were speaking. It mainly delves delicately and beautifully into the topic of grief following the death of the author’s mother. If you don’t mind fantasy sprinkled on daily life like in fairytales, you’ll love it! Let yourself be carried away by the rhythm and forget you don’t understand all the words. Just enjoy!
***Gaël Faye – Petit Pays (must read! The movie is coming soon). Read my review
Other recommended authors
Amélie Nothomb – Stupeurs et tremblements, if you like Japan, you’ll enjoy this funny story. There’s also a movie. Amélie Nothomb’s book vary in difficulty. It’s definitely not easy but if you like her style, you’ll get used to it.
Marc Lévy et Guillaume Musso – They’re not my cup of tea but if you like love stories, go for it! They’re two of the best-selling authors in France and the style isn’t too difficult
Leïla Slimani – Chanson Douce . A tragic modern tale, beautifully written.
Laetitia Colombani – La Tresse. The moving stories of 3 women on 3 continents (the syntax isn’t overly complex but the vocabulary may be challenging).
Nancy Houston – Lignes de faille. If you like family stories, this book follows 3 generations. Each section is told from the perspective of a 6 year-old (the little boy, his father, his grandmother) and blends personal stories and history. The author is Canadian and she wrote both versions of the book (English and French)
Anna Gavalda – Read my review of Ensemble c’est tout. It’s very long so make sure you have read a few books in French before (there’s a movie also)
Larry Tremblay – L’orangeraie. A beautiful story about a family in a war-torn country. An author from Quebec.
Delphine de Vigan – Advanced learners will enjoy her captivating stories between reality and fiction. The vocabulary is advanced but the style flows well. I recommend Histoires de famille (autobiography), No et moi (a friendship between two young girls) and D’après une histoire vraie (pretend-autobiography with elements of a thriller)
If feel like I have to include Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It’s such a classic and the story resonates strongly with me. However be aware that the level of language is far from easy. The syntax is a bit complex and there are some outdated words.
Littérature africaine: j’avoue mon manque de culture dans ce domaine mais je vais me mettre à rechercher des auteurs francophones africains. En attendant, voici une liste de 21 classiques africains.
For darker literature (polars, crime and investigation stories), try:
Bruno de Stabenrath – Cavalcade et Le châtiment de Narcisse
Fred Vargas – Pars vite et reviens tard and many others
Michel Bussi – Nymphéas Noirs, Gravé dans le sable and many more
Olivier Adam – Des vents contraires
Georges Simenon‘s novels are classics (like the Commissaire Maigret series) and very popular among French learners. He’s not as contemporary as the others on the list as his work was published between the 1920s and 1980s.
Fiction with a hint of personal development
Isabelle Giordano – Ta deuxième vie commence le jour où tu comprends que tu n’en as qu’une . Le jour où les lions mangeront de la salade verte .
Virginie Grimaldi – Le premier jour du reste de ma vie
Laurent Gounelle – Le jour où j’ai appris à vivre
To talk about a piece you’ve read or work on improving your writing, let’s meet!
Interested in using French reading at the intermediate level? Check this out
Watch this interview with Olly Richards, founder of StoryLearning, about the benefits of learning with stories and other tips to speed up your path to fluency.