Book Review:  Squid for Brains Picture Books

Squid for Brains Simplified Chinese books are a set of books that I chanced upon randomly, after discovering one lone picture book in book-sharing free library.  My interest was piqued by that one book, yet after googling I could find little about the series, aside from the fact that more similar books existed.  Despite the Squid for Brains facebook page having less likes than even I do, I went against gut feel and ordered a few more books from their website at a whim.  I’m glad I did, and here’s what we discovered.

Note – Squid for Brains have books written in both Simplified and Traditional Chinese, along with matching titles in Spanish.  This post specifically covers the two Squid for Brains Picture Book sets. I have another post covering the Squid for Brains Readers (which are longer and chapter books).

Key Information on Squid for Brains Picture Books

  • Series name: Squid for Brains – PandaRiffic Books and Zhongwen Bu Mafan! Series.
  • Author:  Dr Terry Waltz
  • Number of books in set:  PandaRiffic – 6, and Zhonwhen Bu Mafan – 8
  • Number of lines per page:  Quite varied, but maximum 6
  • Number of pages per book:  30 – 50
  • Total length of the book:  Varies but approx. 1000 – 1500 characters
  • Characters required by child to read it independently: 19 – 100 unique characters (as in, each book only contains that many characters, so if a child knew 500 characters total, there’s a good chance that they’d know nearly everything in the book)
  • Pinyin: Yes, and it’s kept on different page from the characters
  • Bilingual: No
  • Available in Singapore NLB:  No
  • Original language of publication:  Chinese (also available in Spanish)
  • Characters: Traditional and Simplified versions
  • Audio available: No (but works great with Luka Hero Point and Read function)
  • Suggested ages:  Beginner readers of any age

Background to Squid for Brains Picture Books

Squid for Brains is the brainchild of Dr Terry Waltz, a talented translator, interpreter and language extraordinaire. Whilst little exists on the web about these books, I gather that the intent of these books was to have readable and accessible content for students learning Chinese as a second language, building on the theory of comprehensible input to gain fluency in a language.  In Dr Waltz’s case, she says she uses  ‘comprehended input’™  because it’s even more digestible than typical comprehensible input, meaning there is nothing left uncomprehended by the reader.  That’s getting into semantics, but I love her audacity to create meaningful literature for beginners.

Attaining fluency through graded reading books with limited character count is a concept featuring in many of my children’s favourite book series.  Why?  Because these are the books that they can pick up and read, understand, and enjoy, as they’ve been meticulously designed and written to be approachable for a non-native reader, with a limited character range.  I have this ongoing struggle with the children when they finish a series about ‘which book next?’ because comprehensible input in Chinese is a rare genre.  My kids are well beyond Mary & Jane type books, but the gap to reading Harry Potter in Chinese is still a very evident one for my children.   Something like Squid for Brains is a good gap-filler.

The author herself, Dr Waltz, is a Chinese language teacher of 30+ years, and those who have done her online classes (focussed for adults) cannot recommend her enough.

Synopsis of Squid for Brains Simplified Chinese Picture Books

  • Zhongwen Bu Mufan! Series: unpredictable short stories, made from highly limited word count (eg the Guiseppe story contains on 19 unique Chinese characters, to tell a story about a guy who looking for the pizza toppings of his dreams).  English words are used where necessary to get the story across.
  • PandaRiffic Series:  based on traditional folk tales, but with a Panda as the main actor (eg Pandarella, Panda White, Panda Soup, Panda Jack and the Bamboo Stalk, etc).  These books are slightly longer with an increased characters range.
Squid for Brains Simplified Chinese Picture Books

What my daughter likes about the series

  • Very punny:  That’s right.  These are satirical and contain plays-on-words that my kids appreciate, such as the Mal-Wart store, a Cyley Mirus concert, and Bordon Cramsie in the kitchen.  My kids had a good laugh about ‘NiTube’ rather than ‘YouTube’.
  • Simple to read and understand: The books are very much intended for early language learners, and focus on high frequency words.  Some of them follow familiar stories, and others are familiar scenarios.   All of them have a touch of humour.
  • Balance of text and graphics: Large sized and clear text, with bold and silly illustrations.  Some of the illustrations are the type of thing a child could draw using MS Paint, so my kids find even the pictures simple to understand how they were created. 

What a parent will like about Squid for Brains Picture Books

  • No pinyin beside the characters, but there is a glossary at the back:  A general pet peeve of mine is any beginner book that contains pinyin above the characters.  Squid for Brains books are free from this.
  • Has a colour-coded approach for characters and tones, and spaces between words:  this may or may not be relevant, depending on how well your child understands the tonal nature of Mandarin.  For learners from non-native backgrounds, there is a unique TOP (Tonally Orthographic Pinyin) Romanization System designed by Dr Waltz, which colour codes the characters in 4 colours depending on their tone.  Quite fascinating and intuitive approach with some more info on the author’s website here with rationale for the character colour coding.  Additionally, there are inserted spaces between words to make the text more accessible for beginners. 
  • Printed using a hand-writing style font: the font used (in their new edition books) is a proprietary Squid for Brains Chinese handwriting font, which is intended to look more like handwriting, so it’s easier for a beginner to copy versus printed fonts.  I like this concept a lot!  
  • Accompanying teaching guide:  for teachers / home schoolers, you’ll appreciate that  there is an additional teaching guide to which can be purchased, containing classroom-tested activities, digital flipbooks, cartoon strips and tasks, etc.

Insides of the Books

Squid for Brains Simplified Chinese Picture Books Panadarella

Some watchouts and considerations

I really want to love Squid for Brains, but I cannot give it a fully unqualified thumbs up for a few reasons.  This is a bit of an insight into why it’s really hard for small-time writers.  It’s never easy being a self-published author.

Firstly, only half the books I ordered actually arrived.  We’ll blame US Postal service for that.  So that’s a lesson for me that I should pay for proper courier service if it’s offered. Squid for Brains team was very kind in arranging redelivery.

Secondly, of the books that arrived, one of them was in Spanish when I’d ordered Simplified Chinese (thankfully my daughter is learning Spanish too, but it wasn’t what I’d been planning for).  Then, another book had the correct front cover, but inside had contents for a totally different book (it was a great book, but the wrong book).   That’s the printer’s error.  As I understand it, there isn’t much bargaining power when you’re a small business and the printer sees you as a dime a dozen.

Finally, inside one of the books, there were a few small grammatical errors that my daughter picked up (like differing tones of a character).  Again, this seems to be the printer using perhaps a wrong file, and I guess if the printing press cannot actually read the files they’re printing on-demand, this is bound to happen too.  I’d compare this with something like Sage 500 books, which are heralded as being the holy grail for teaching kids to read in Chinese.  Sage 500 books are literally littered with mistakes too, but people never complain about that, do they?

All in all, that sounds like a laundry list of small niggles, but it’s really so you go in eyes wide open.   They’re REALLY great books, although some headwinds with the execution.  I’m glad to be able to support an independent author / illustrator / publisher like Squid for Brains, and hope that others will also find Dr Terry Waltz’s efforts helpful in their own language journeys.  We’re looking forward to reading the Squid for Brains more advanced bridging books next (they look even more intriguing than the picture books).

Where to buy Squid for Brains Chinese books

I bought ours direct from Squid for Brains website.  As mentioned above, there were a few issues with their delivery, but the company was very responsive and apologetic. 

There are some books on Amazon, and I’m guessing lost packages and returns would be much easier through that channel.  However, it’s Amazon making the $$, and I’d rather support a great author directly if I can.

If my child likes this, what are other similar books in Simplified Chinese?

Squid for Brains Simplified Chinese picture books are very accessible for an emergent reader, containing modern stories with a decent – but short –  storyline.  There’s not too much similar which I’ve come across (although happy to be proven wrong on this).

Some books which my children have enjoyed at a sort-of-similar reading level are:

  • Little Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Tales series (review here see part way down post) – short story books for emerging readers about silly little dumplings with a lot of heart.  I think the level of satire is on par with Squid for Brains too.
  • Odonata Graded Learning Short stories: Odonata has graded learning readers (designed for learning 1200 characters), which I’ve reviewed before, but they also have short stories that match these readers.   The first stories all contain less than 100 characters.  They’re very kiddy in story design and pictures, so won’t appeal to older children.
  • Mi Xiao Quan 米小圈上学记一年级 series (review here) – their Grade 1 books contain pinyin above the words, and are a good laugh. However overall sentences/content is harder than what most beginners would be able to manage, let alone length, but these work well for a child who already has a good spoken understanding of Mandarin.
  • Levelled readers for younger children: overall, I’d advocate that if your child knows only a handful of characters, that you should progress systematically through graded readers, and I’ve put a few ideas previously about Chinese levelled readers  (eg Le Le Chinese would be a good pick, or Little Sheep Goes up the Mountain) and read shorter stories with lots of repetition of characters and climb your way up to knowing 1000+ characters.  At that level, many more doors open up!

I hope you found this introduction to Squid for Brain helpful. I would also love to know what other books you think are great at this same novice level. Please share any ideas below.


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