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Mandarin Companion Review

Easy to Read Chinese Novels: Mandarin Companion

Basic information about Mandarin Companion graded readers:

Author:  Jared Turner and John Pasden
Country of original publication: China
Language: Simplified Chinese or Traditional Chinese
Pages per book: ~60 (Breakthrough Series) or ~90 (Level 1)
Lines per page: 2 -12
Books in the series: 17 (across 3 levels)
Pinyin: Yes, in footnote for specific word
Audio available: 
Yes, for some books
Available in Singapore NLB libraries: No
Total length of the book: 5000 (Breakthrough Series) or 10000 characters (Level 1 & 2)
Character knowledge required by child to read it independently: <500

If you follow my blog, you know that I’m a little obsessed with graded readers.  We have a lot, and we love them all for different purposes.   A graded reader is a book that’s written using a specific limited amount of words (or in the case of Mandarin, a certain amount of unique characters) and gets progressively harder, to suit readers at different levels. 

Mandarin Companion books are a really different kind of graded reader / bridging book set.  For Levels 1 & 2, they take classics from English literature, and cleverly translate them into books with minimal characters, that can be read by a Mandarin beginner.  This concept makes it quite appealing for an older learner, who can become a bit bored by the ‘Tom and Jane’ style beginning books.

I feel this approach to designing a graded reader is quite a western concept to learning Chinese – in that there are so may simplified classical stories for English learners, and we’ve yet to find many of these in Chinese (apart from Monkey King).  That’s why Mandarin Companion are great.   This series is designed to combine simplicity of characters with an intersting storyline and a Chinese cultural twist. 

How can a story like Jane Austin’s Emma or Sherlock Holmes, or the Secret Garden be condensed down into just 300 or less characters without losing the intrigue?  Well, yes, you’ll see it’s been done very well.

Are these graded readers or bridging books?

Whilst the publisher calls the Mandarin Companion Readers ‘Graded Readers’, to me they’re actually straddling into the realm of ‘Bridging Books’ because they’re longer than most Chinese readers and not designed to be as kiddy, and are well developed stories based on a limited set of characters, rather than short picture book stories which systematically introduce new characters, with many visual prompts.  In any case, whatever you call them, let’s agree they’re easy-to-read Chinese chapter books.  Novel and great!

For context, these books are harder (and much more interesting) than early stage readers like Sage 500 or the first couple of levels of Odonata.  They’re substantially easier than the final sets in Odonata and the Green Le Le Chinese books. 

There are three levels: breakthrough level (150 characters), level 1 (300 characters), and level 2 (450 characters), with different stories for each.   These certainly aren’t books I’d use with a pre-primary age student (because of the lack of pictures, and pure length) but I think for an intermediate primary age or older Mandarin learner, these are a godsend.

Who is behind Mandarin Companion?

The books are the brainchild of Jared Turner and John Pasden (from Sinosplice …. which is the longest running blog on the internet focussed on learning Mandarin Chinese….. RESPECT!), who between them have lived several decades in China, and have a good understanding of what it’s like to learn Chinese and become fluent in the language, when coming from a non-native background.    

In contrast to our other Chinese levelled reading sets (eg Le Le from Taiwan, Sage from Hong Kong, Odonata from Malaysia, Disney I Can Read from Mainland China) which originate from Chinese-speaking countries where children learning to read and write Chinese at a pre-primary age, the Mandarin Companion books are specifically targeted for non-native learners.  Co-author Jared Turner has written a great explanation on the value of extensive reading to learn a second language on the Mandarin Companion website,  which is worthwhile to have a look at, and understand their pedagogy.

Why Mandarin Companion is good?

Sage 500 (getting up to ~500 characters) has similar word range to My Teacher is a Martian (150 characters only), but with a more interesting storyline.


Titles Available (& a taste of how they’ve been given an Asian twist)

Breakthrough level (150 unique characters):

The Breakthrough Level stories are the only books which are not adaptations of western classics.  The are originals works by John Pasden and Jared Turner, cleverly designed with limited word selections yet intriguing plot.

Level one (300 unique characters):

We haven’t read the rest yet but they are:

Level two (450 unique characters):

They’re all available in Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese, in eBook or physical copy. 

We have 8 of the 17 books (none from Level 2)

The Mandarin Companion website has full descriptions of each book.  Free PDF excerpts are available online, which will give you a sense for the contents and level of the books. 

Layout of the Mandarin Companion Books

Each book has a similar layout.

First, it introduces the characters at the start.  They’ve all been very localised with mainland Chinese names and settings.

The end has a glossary containing all the words in blue in the main text.

Key Words list from Mandarin Companion

Where to buy?

They’re available to order in Singapore from Amazon Prime, with free delivery.  I haven’t seen them sold through any other shops or online stores locally.

Elsewhere, visit the Mandarin Companion website and see their local selling methods in your geography.

Wondering about other similar books to Mandarin Companion?

In short, we don’t know any which are remotely similar except Chines Breeze. I’ve done a comparison of other graded novels for not-quite beginners where you might get some ideas.

I’ve also reviewed other books which my primary school age children enjoy here, and also listed out bridging books by character complexity in another post, but none of them are as simple to start with as these Mandarin Companion readers.

I’ve attempted to sort this book list from easiest to hardest. The characters required is just my best guess – no I haven’t gone in detail and compared all the book text with characters lists. In many cases, I find it’s not just the complexity of characters, but also the length of the text also, and how appealing the graphics are.

Below is a graphic, where I’ve sorted some of the series review on my blog by length and complexity. You’ll see Mandarin Companion sits in a league of its own.

Comparison of Chinese bridging books

I’ve love to hear from you about your thoughts and recommendations. Reading widely is a key to attaining fluency in Chinese, and it’s something I’m passionate about. I love connecting with other book-loving comrades, and if you’re in Singapore, perhaps you might even like to join the Ni Hao Singapore Primary School Chinese FB Group created by a few local bloggers just for this purpose, and it includes the ability to buy and sell used books!

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