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Whether you’ve only recently started learning French, or are well on your way to fluency, reading a book (or 100) in French can do wonders for your language skills!
Reading a French novel or storybook can improve your understanding of the written language, your grasp of spelling and grammar, and your vocabulary.
But how do you know what French books to read or how difficult each one is? What about whether you’ll find their themes, characters, and settings interesting?
Well, you’ve come to the right place. Here, I will take you through the 16 best books and novels to learn French, for a variety of abilities. Allez!
Active reading vs. passive reading
Target language reading can be what we call active (where you will write down vocabulary and sentence structures you find as you read) or passive (where you simply read and don’t focus on language learning).
The best strategy for learning French will combine both active and passive reading.
Active reading will improve your French the most – but can be slow. Meanwhile, passive reading will keep you more engrossed in the book and its plot, but will lead to less retention. A balance between the two is good to keep you learning and enjoying!
What French texts should you read?
My advice would be to read what you enjoy the most! Whether fiction books, short stories, biographies, comics, classic French novels, or anything else at all, reading in French will be greatly useful so long as you can understand the content and learn from it.
As a general rule, books written more recently will be easier to read: their style is often simpler and their vocabulary closer to modern usage. However, since many contemporary French books are ‘postmodern’ in style, they may also have plots or meanings which are harder to understand in context.
Contemporary texts will also have a wider variety of authors, characters, and settings. They will be more inclusive and interesting for readers who want to see women, people of color, and queer people in literature!
French novels, storybooks and children’s books for beginners
Many of these French books for beginners may be short stories or children’s storybooks, but don’t be put off. They all remain captivating reads, and will provide wonderful insights into French culture and the world around us.
I have also included some more adult-focused texts. But do not worry, all these texts will do wonders for your French!
Le Petit Prince is one of the most famous storybooks ever written in French. It is one of the best-selling and most-translated books ever, having been translated into 301 languages and dialects.
The novella follows the little prince as he travels across different planets, including Earth, meeting various friends or acquaintances along the way.
This French book is written in the style of a children’s book, which makes for easy reading. But, its themes and plot are far from so. The little prince’s reflections on adulthood, friendship, life, and travel are insightful and interesting perspectives filtered through a child’s eyes.
Not to be confused with Le Petit Prince, this series of children’s books follows the fictional childhood of Nicolas in 1950s France.
Like many children’s books, Le Petit Nicolas is interesting for its satirical presentation of adults and adulthood, providing an interesting analysis of 1950s France and its flaws.
The series is published in many installments so if you like the first book, you will luckily have enough French storybooks to keep you going for a while!
If you’re looking for French short stories specifically aimed at adults rather than children, then this selection of stories by Olly Richards and Richard Simcott is a great option.
Both authors are known and experienced polyglots, speaking eight and sixteen languages respectively. As a result, they know how to help language learners like you develop the required skills to read and understand French, producing this useful set of stories.
All eight stories in this book are captivating for an adult audience even despite their simple language. The book also includes chapter summaries and vocabulary lists, to help you get the most out of your language learning.
There are few French novels possible for beginner learners, but this short novel is a great choice for some variety! It is a charming coming-of-age story, which follows the son of a male cleaner and an ill mother.
It deals with themes of gender roles and adolescence in modern society, providing an interesting and thought-provoking narrative as you work your way through the French.
This French novel was adapted into a film, which is directed by Azzeddine. It sticks as closely to the original text as possible, making it a great way to improve your French listening skills once you have read the novel.
Another great set of short stories for adult learners of French is this collection by the language company, Lingo Mastery.
The collection is specifically targeted at English speakers who are learning and trying to improve their French. Each story is focused around a grammar or vocabulary point (such as directions or the past tense) and includes a summary in English and French.
Its sections of targeted vocabulary, which follow each story, will also come in very handy for retaining the words you gain while reading.
French novels and storybooks for intermediate learners
Once you feel comfortable with the stories and texts above, you may feel that you want to push yourself onto harder texts, such as authentic French novels.
These texts below are of high value for their writing and culture alone, but also happen to be great media for developing your French skills even further!
This novel by Albert Camus is famous amongst French people and learners of French alike. It features on many school syllabi in both France and abroad for those learning French. Its influence on French and world philosophy and literature cannot be understated.
The novel is known for its especially simplistic style, as the main character Mersault narrates his ennui towards life and society.
It deals with some engrossing philosophical concepts, such as death, morality, and Absurdism. But, given the simplistic language, these interesting topics remain very accessible for readers.
For other Camus novels, check out La Peste (The Plague) in particular. Though published in 1947, it became a best-seller during the peak of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. The novel’s subject matter – a plague that sends an Algerian city into what is effectively lockdown – struck a strong chord with many during the pandemic and feels ominously relevant.
Poetry is famed for being overtly sophisticated and hard to read (just ask Shakespeare or the Romantic poets), even before you read it in a foreign language.
But, reading French poetry doesn’t have to be difficult. Introducing Apollinaire! He is well known for his short poems, which are often written in the shape of the object that the poem describes (called a calligram). This was particularly experimental and exciting for his time of the early 20th century
His most famous poem is written in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. Though the language is very simple, some knowledge of French is necessary to identify the French words, whose letters sometimes run over several lines.
Slimani’s second novel tells the tragic story of two babies killed by their nanny. A classic psychological thriller, it deals with themes such as family, class, and careerism in modern society. It is in fact inspired by the real-life murder of two children by their nanny in New York in 2012.
The novel is beautifully written and the suspense regarding the murder and the nanny’s link to the children radiates from the pages. The novel won the Prize Goncourt in 2016, France’s most prestigious literary award.
It is a great novel for intermediate-advanced readers who want to work on their French and be immersed in contemporary French literature (it was only published in 2016).
Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot is easy to read partly because it is in fact a play, rather than a novel. But, Beckett’s style is known for being subversively minimalist, leading to even more simplistic language than most plays.
The play has little plot, and follows a set of absurd and humorous characters as they wait around for an unknown character called – you guessed it – Godot. It was so unlike any other play seen before that at its première in London, many spectators walked out before it had even finished.
Beckett wrote all his plays in French and English, translating them himself. Therefore, if you have any issues with the original French, you can easily check the English for clarification.
Les Années is fascinating for learning about modern French history.
It traces the life of the French nation from the point of Ernaux’s birth to the early 2000s, providing a captivating look at the country’s development, politics, social relations, culture, and so much more.
Though this book may teeter on the more advanced level, it is great for more experienced intermediate readers who want to work on their French while learning more about modern French history.
This semi-autobiography is also great for exploring issues of feminism and class in a French context, tracing the author’s relation to identity and belonging over the course of 80 years of her life.
French literature for more advanced learners
Once you’ve reached this stage, you know you’re well on your way to French proficiency, and even fluency.
The French texts listed below are well known for their cultural contributions to the Francophone (French-speaking) world, and also for their more complex or transgressive writing styles. They are classics of French literature.
But, as always, these texts will be worth the time and effort, both greatly improving your French and providing amazing cultural value.
11 and 12. Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo
You know your French skills are seriously impressive if you manage to finish Les Misérables. At 1462 pages, this French literature is packed full of in-depth descriptions and intriguing characters for you to analyze and enjoy.
If you’re learning French because of an interest in French culture and history, then this will be a great read for you. The book is a momentous piece of French fiction and literature, famous for its exploration of the 1832 June Rebellion.
It is considered one of the greatest books ever written, and its significance is clear in the fact that it is still known outside of France as Les Misérables, rather than any translated title.
Another great novel by Victor Hugo is Notre-Dame de Paris. It traces France’s history against the backdrop of one of its most famous monuments, the Notre-Dame Cathedral. This book is slightly shorter, at 940 pages, but still some mean feat to finish.
If you thought Les Misérables was long, then you have seen nothing yet. À la recherche du temps perdu clocks in at a magnificent 4215 pages, making it probably the longest of the classic French novels.
This novel is incredibly complex for even native French speakers, written in a winding labyrinthine style. But taking just a dip into Proust’s novel will be very rewarding, and confirm your true advanced French capabilities if you are able to penetrate its difficult exterior.
Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe is a key text in the French philosophical and political canon. It is a major work of feminist theory, and is often regarded as the founding text of second-wave feminism.
Written in 1949, it analyses the history of women’s oppression, and concludes that the concept of a woman is created by society, rather than being natural.
Her assertion that “One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one” (“on ne naît pas femme, on le deviant”) is famous for revealing the gender expectations that are forced on girls from a young age.
The philosophical language and thought-provoking messages will do great work for perfecting your French.
Assia Djebar’s work is some of the Francophone world’s more intricate writing, but her novels are so rewarding and captivating – it was hard to keep her off this list.
As an Algerian woman who grew up speaking French and not Arabic, her writing style tries to keep a certain Arabic feel. This results in an idiolect and language that is Algerian-influenced and a bit harder to decipher.
Her Femmes d’Alger dans leur Appartement is a collection of short stories that depict the lives of Algerian women from the Algerian Revolution onwards.
It explores female identity and existence, as women who are caught between a repressive colonial force and a patriarchal and traditional Algerian society. It really is a Francophone classic and masterpiece.
Césaire’s work is an example of why Francophone modern poetry is so great.
Césaire grew up in Martinique, a colonized island in the Caribbean that still forms part of France today. However, upon moving to Paris, Césaire found that he was not treated as a common Frenchman, but an object of France’s Empire.
His Cahier d’un retour au pays natal is an extended poem that powerfully explores race, empowerment, and identity during France’s colonial period. It examines his return to Martinique after time in Paris, and his reckoning with his own self and race.
It is a masterpiece of French black literature and was many years ahead of its time.
Tip: Read books in parallel translation
A useful way to learn French, especially for intermediate learners, is to read texts which were originally published in English and which have been translated into French – preferably if you have already read the text in English.
This way, you are already familiar with the plot and characters, and can devote more attention to the French language.
Many common books will be published ‘in parallel’. This means that on a double-page spread, the French translation will be published alongside the original English.
The Harry Potter books are well known for being published as parallel texts. Many French kids will learn English by reading the parallel text, and this method can work just as well as you. If you have already read the series in English or watched the movies, perhaps start with Harry Potter à l’École des Sorciers and work from there.
Fin ! 16 captivating French storybooks, novels, and texts that will grossly help you on your journey to French fluency and your quest to immerse yourself in Francophone culture.
If you’re looking to further improve your French grammar and vocabulary, hop off to the next article on the best books to learn French.