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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:

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 table of Mandarin Companion, Chinese Breeze, Sinolingua Rainbow Bridge and GZC

Mandarin Companion Chinese Graded Readers

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

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

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)

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

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:

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