Chinese Graded Novels: Books for not-quite-beginners

Are you looking for easy Chinese novels? Chinese graded novels are a great way for an older child or even an adult learner to read more extensively, without getting out of their depth. This post explores some of the best graded novels and what my children think about them.

What are graded novels or graded readers?

I’ve written previously about the magic of extensive reading in the journey to mastering Mandarin (yes, I do mean speaking the language).  Graded readers are a helpful for extensive reading, as they are specifically designed stories using a set amount of characters, and with helpful annotations so you don’t have to stop every few sentences to look up the meaning of a new word.  

Chinese graded novels are essentially longer versions of graded readers, which are less kiddy.   We’re talking about long stories with plots and complexity, yet limited character range, which makes for great reading practice.  Such books are written with shorter sentences and deliberately accessible language, which is often repeated.  Very importantly, a good graded Chinese reader wouldn’t contain any contain pinyin above the characters.  Some come with full English translations at the back, and others do not. They have a variety of levels, so the concept is to start at a level where you know >95% of the vocabulary to ensure that reading is pleasurable and not a chore.

A graded reading book is good, if:

  • the story is engaging and well written
  • the reading level is appropriate for the reader
  • It is well annotated

In the post below, I hope to show you some really great Chinese graded novels, and some more average ones too (not everything in life can be amazing!).

How do graded novels in Chinese compare?

We have a couple of different sets of graded ChInese reading novels – all have their pros and cons.  This post compares the differences and similarities between four well-known sets.  These sets are each well-written and researched (some better than others), reasonably engaging, and relatively easy to find.  Buying a set of these will stop you from going on a wild goose chase of other less-known books and alternatives.

Graded readers covered in this post:

  1. Mandarin Companion Chinese Graded Readers
  2. Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series
  3. Sinolingua Rainbow Bridge Graded Chinese Readers
  4. Graded Readers for Chinese Language Learners (Gaoxiao Zhuti Chuban)
Comparison of graded Chinese novels
Comparison table of Mandarin Companion, Chinese Breeze, Sinolingua Rainbow Bridge and GZC

Mandarin Companion Chinese Graded Readers

  • Books in set: 17
  • Length: 10,000 – 20,000 word length
  • Country of publication: Shanghai, USA, Australia
  • Authors: Jared Turner and John Pasden
  • Publisher: Mindspark Press
  • Difficulty:  Three levels, going from 150 words to 450 unique words (HSK2 to HSK 4)
  • Languages: Simplified Chinese AND Traditional Chinese versions
  • Audio option: Yes
  • eBook option: Yes

Overview: Purposefully written and meticulously developed books that seek to be fun and accelerate language learning, even for a beginner. Most of their titles are Chinese adaptations of Western novels, like Sherlock Holmes or Jane Austen’s Emma. 

A mum’s view:  Highly engaging and pleasurable; there’s something so wonderfully enticing and encouraging about the ways these stories are written.    There is an English introduction setting the scene, and then subtle footnotes on each page for the harder vocabulary.  It’s very nicely laid out and illustrated in colour.  The characters count is more limited, and book range isn’t as extensive as the other series mentioned here, so they’re really great as a first set of novels.  The most basic level is even easier than something like Odonata or Le Le in terms of characters used.  The stories are different enough from the English original versions that the child certainly doesn’t need to know the title already, and even if they do, they will be surprised with the Chinese localization.  I promise you, even for the most reluctant reader, if they pick one of these, they’ll surely make it to the end, and the sense of satisfaction will be worth it!  

My child’s view:  These are my daughter’s favorites by far of all our readers, and I’ve written a separate detailed blog post review of Mandarin Companion.  They’re basically easy-to-read novels and it’s interesting to see the twist they have from the original western stories.

Favourite titles in series: Emma, The Secret Garden, Country of the Blind

Website of the authors: Mandarin Companion (a great website with lots and lots more on it!)

Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series 汉语凤

Chinese Breeze
  • Books in set: 21
  • Length: 8,000 to 30,000 characters
  • Country of publication: USA
  • Authors: Yuehua Liu, Chengzhi Chu, et al.
  • Publisher: Cheng & Tsui
  • Difficulty: 4 levels, ranging from 300 unique words to 1100 words (HSK 3 to 5)
  • Languages: Simplified Chinese
  • Audio option: Yes
  • eBook option: Yes MP3 or CD

Overview: Original stories from professional authors, purposefully and cleverly written to incorporate HSK vocabulary into interesting stories, covering a wide range of genre including comedy, romance, mystery, non-fiction and more.

A mum’s view: Not super engaging, but very reasonable, and a well thought out layout. Like Mandarin Companion, there is a short outline at the start (in English and Chinese) descirbing the main cast of characters and places.  The vocabulary used sticks more closely to HSK than the Mandarin Companion sets does.  They also cover a really wide variety of genres, including romance, fantasy, and horror.  After we ran out of books in the Mandarin Companion series, this set was a logical one to do next.  Some stories are better than others, so choose titles which you think your kids can relate to.  Also look out for the funny quirks where they are clearly trying to fit HSK vocabulary into a story where it doesn’t exactly fit.

My child’s view:  Not as engaging as Mandarin Companion, but she’ll still happily read them through.

Favourite titles in series: Green Pheonix,  Secrets of a Computer Company

Sinolingua Rainbow Bridge Graded Chinese Readers

  • Books in set: 40
  • Length: 2,000 to 20,000 characters
  • Country of publication: China
  • Publisher: Sinolingua
  • Difficulty: 7 levels going from 50 to 2500 unique words
  • Languages: Simplified Chinese and English
  • Audio Options: Yes, MP3
  • eBook option: Yes

Overview:  Graded books written around Chinese mythology, legends, folklore, literary classics, and biographies of famous people. They have been designed to provide a collection of reading materials with content aligned to commonly used high-frequency Chinese vocabulary.

A mum’s view:  Each of the books has the Chinese story at the front and a full English translation at the back.  The layout is a bit clunky with the advanced words or complicated phrases explained in the side margins in English, and a large part of each page is taken up by a two-tone picture.  Some of the stories in the lower levels can be a bit awkward due to the highly limited word list, and the English translation is equally clunky.  Then since all the stories are about Chinese legends, the vocabulary tends to be a lot around war, fighting, and army, so not as well-rounded as other series.  There is also short comprehension and vocabulary list at the end too.

My child’s view:   Fun, once you get into them ….. there’s usually a bit of upfront energy because there are names and unfamiliar words at the start.  But then ultimately she enjoys then, and also values having the English translation of the story, to check her understanding.

Favourite titles in series: The Legend of the White Snake, Identifying the Thief by Touching the Bell

Graded Readers for Chinese Language Learners  (Gaoxiao Zhuti Chuban)

Mandarin Graded Readers for Chinese Language
  • Books in set: 50
  • Length: 20,000 to 35,000 characters
  • Country of publication: China
  • Author: Chen Xianchun
  • Publisher: Beijing Language and Culture University Press
  • Difficulty: 3 levels ranging from 500 to 1200 unique characters, however they’re not always common characters
  • Languages: Simplified Chinese
  • Audio option: no (but it might help to listen to some of these stories via Ximalaya to understood)
  • eBook: no

Overview: Abridged versions of historical and contemporary Chinese authors, divided into three subseries of differing complexity being folktales (easiest), literary stories and historical stories (hardest).  These are specifically designed as reading materials for Chinese language learners, including being targeted for lower primary school levels in China.

A mum’s view:  these books are largely kept on the shelf for a later date, due to their length and complexity.  I can see the potential in them though – they’re very similar to a typical novel in length and style.  Some of the stories even go across 2 or 3 books, making them a real feat to get through. I’ve been assured from other mums that they’re extremely well written and captivating, and also try to have faithfulness to the original literature. It would definitely be a great set to work through for out-loud reading with an adult who can read the language, and especially one familar with the original works and history surrounding the writing.

My child’s view:  Too long, and has no context setting in English, so it’s hard to know where the story might be head.

Favourite titles in series (so far): Hua Mulan

Squid for Brains Readers

  • Books in set: 5
  • Length: 8,000 to 11,000 characters
  • Country of publication: USA
  • Author: Dr Terry Waltz
  • Publisher: Squid for Brains
  • Difficulty: The five books get progressively harder.  The easiest book consists of 175 unique characters.  If a child knew ~1000 characters total, there’s a good chance that they’d be able to read nearly everything.
  • Languages: Simplified Chinese
  • Audio option: no
  • eBook: no

Overview: The target audience is for learners of Chinese as a second language.   These Chinese Readers focus on high-frequency vocabulary used during year 1 of most American middle school / high school Chinese programs. They’re written with a great sense of humour and a lot of pop culture references.

A mum’s view:  These are simple text yet complex stories at an age-appropriate level for 10 years+. Good for a reluctant reader. Because they have a highly limited character set, you can buy these books with more certainty that your child actually will be able to read them and learn a handful as new characters too.  It will also likely take them quite a way to chew through the books as they’re long, so it’s like a mini-project for them.

My child’s view:  A great in-between before getting onto real fiction novels, on the easier side, but encouraging to keep reading for pleasure (way easier than Dogman, Dork Diaries or Harry Potter!). Enjoys it because it has “punny” names of people, places, foods, tv shows etc and some of the books use English interspersed between the characters (eg Cheesy Tuna Surprise, Tennessee Fried Chicken, PowerBall).  This brings the narrative to life more for a beginner.

Favourite titles in series (so far): Susan

I’ve written a separate detailed blog post of Squid for Brain chapter books here.

What other great but not-so-hard books are out there?

Please tell me if you discover something great! I have a family of bookworms and we’re always looking for great reads to further our Chinese learning.

For younger children, I would recommend shorter Chinese levelled reading picture books, which I’ve covered in an earlier post. Bridging books are another great option for shorter reads.

I hope that this post has been helpful. If you’ve reached the end and are still looking for more, maybe I have written some other posts which might be of interest:

2 thoughts on “Chinese Graded Novels: Books for not-quite-beginners

  1. I am sampling all these titles myself (Mandarin Companion, Chinese Breeze, BLCUP Graded Readers for Chinese Language Learners) plus some others and your article had been beneficial so thank you 🙂

    Personally, I love Mandarin Companion best especially because it gets me and my learning partner to start reading, as their breakthrough level is the true easiest out there. I am a heritage learner who had about 6 years of formal Chinese learning as a kid (about 5 hours per week in class) and my learning partner is French with no exposure to the language prior to this. I must admit that being a heritage learner helps a lot in identifying where some of the stories will go (I am familiar with a lot of them) and already know some vocabulary (like who is Yi Huang Da Di/the Emperor of the Sky) related to the folktales.

    Sinolingua’s Rainbow Bridge is actually a bit hard even for the lowest level of 150 characters as I feel a good part of these characters aren’t high-frequency words and as you say, a lot are tied to ancient warfare.

    There is Imagin8 Press which does some amazing adaptations of Chinese Literary Classic to a very very long graded reader format, they have Monkey King written into 31 books of graded readers (each is about the same length as a Mandarin Companion I feel) and they come with audio books. I showed them to my father (native Chinese speaker) who said even him he finds it really well written as the original format was using a lot of more ancient wordings people don’t actually use that much anymore. However the words you learn here wouldn’t be the most useful.

    I personally find graded readers going for Folktales/Historical stuffs (Sinolingua Rainbow Bridge, BLCUP’s, Imagin8) are very well written and fun to read but aren’t providing the most important words one need in daily modern life. There are much less immediate use of the words such as River Snail Goddess compared to something like “light bulb” or “kitchen sink”. In this regards Mandarin Companion and Chinese Breeze are still shining best.

    I’ll be checking the Friends graded reader series soon from BLCUP, they seem to be featuring modern life stories. There are adults and kids version, from review I see so far they seem to be featuring useful daily modern life words but the stories aren’t very interesting. We’ll see!

    Thank you once again for the review and I must say your website is useful not only for raising bilingual kids (which I aim to do some day) but also for us adults language learner <3

    1. Thanks for your lovely feedback and excellent suggestions!!! This is really encouraging. For the longest time I have meant to look at Imagin8 books, so I’ll actually order some right now 🙂 Honestly we’re really happy with Mandarin Companion, so I think it would be hard to do better.

      Being an adult learning is not an easy feat. Wishing you a fruitful journey, and please keep sharing if you find things helpful!

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