What to Read if You’re Learning French

Claire Handscombe


Are you learning French? Ready for the challenge of reading a whole book?

Stop! Don’t pick just any book. You may be feeling it now, but three pages into the latest translated Sophie Kinsella, your dictionary will be soaked with tears of frustration.

And let’s take chick lit as an example. It feels easy to read in our language. But it’s full of slang, in-fashion vocabulary, and the kind of words you probably aren’t learning at your intensive EU course. It’s hard. So you will feel stupid, even though you are not, and you feel doubly stupid because you will (wrongly) think that the thing you are finding difficult is in fact really easy.

Here are a few you can start with instead.

Le Petit Nicolas, by Sempé-Gosciny

I grew up reading Le Petit Nicolas, and he is ace. His adventures in a classic old-fashioned French primary school will raise a smile.

Not only that, but it’s written in the passé composé — ie, not in that odd tense we inexplicably call the passé simple, which makes it much easier to understand — and will painlessly reinforce all those past participles your French teacher has been trying to get you to learn.

Also, it’s not a novel, but rather a series of stand-alone adventures: much more manageable to tell yourself you will read one story this week than, say, one novel in three months.

Rendez-Moi Mes Poux, by Pef

Another childhood classic is the adventure of this little boy who finds headlice in his hair, and befriends them. It’s short, and funny, and full of word play (nothing too complicated, though), and the illustrations alone make it a worthwhile purchase.

Astérix, by Gosciny/Uderzo

Another oldie but goodie (okay, so I grew up in the 80s, and I’m not going to apologise for that) is Astérix. There is, of course, plenty of word play in this too, which makes it not the easiest of reads — though it also makes it fun once you work out what all the names are supposed to mean.

Bonjour Tristesse, by Francoise Sagan

If you’re more advanced, you might — might — want to try Bonjour Tristesse, by Francoise Sagan. It is as French as French gets — deeply philosophical musings on the inner life of a French teenager during her stifling hot summer in the South of France. It’s also beautifully written and — again — short. Honestly, you cannot underestimate the feeling of achievement that comes with finishing a novel — and those feelings fuel further learning.

Have you discovered any good French reads?

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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