One of the best French teachers I ever had was a charming criminal.
After several years of learning French, I started reading French stories and books on my own. Some were fairly easy, while others required me to look up nearly every word (and in the days before dictionary apps, this meant taking a significant pause in my reading). But those experiences also ended up teaching me things. Vocabulary sticks with you more if you had to struggle to find its meaning, and grammatical structures that an author knowingly or unknowingly relies on tend to stay in your mind like an echo.
The criminal I mentioned wasn’t a real-life one, but a certain Arsène Lupin, gentleman cambrioleur (gentleman burglar), the hero of a series of early 20th century crime/adventure novels, and still a pop culture figure in France today, not to mention the inspiration for a French TV series, as well as a manga and anime series, Lupin the Third, among other things. It wasn’t easy to read all of Arsène Lupin’s adventures, but as I went along, I got better, and my vocabulary got richer, too.
Even if top-hatted jewel thieves who are masters of disguise and seduction don’t appeal to you (hard for me to believe, but okay), there are so many other French short stories out there that are worth discovering – and learning from. Like movies, TV shows, and any other form of the arts or media, not only will they teach you things like vocabulary and grammar; they’ll also give you an insight into French culture (or whatever francophone culture you’re interested in).
Let’s look at some French fairy tales and short stories that can help you boost your vocabulary, grammar, and cultural knowledge – and let your imagination take you to new places, too.
Why read French stories?
No matter how good a language student you are, sometimes grammar and memorization will wear you down. And even if they don’t, language is a living thing. It’s important to know its rules and workings, but vital to understand how it’s used in context. You might know how to conjugate the verb réfléchir, but do you know how to use it in a sentence?
Reading in French will show you how French-speakers use their language to express themselves. Even if you prefer older stories or fairy tales, you’ll learn about conventions – for example, French fairy tales often start with the phrase Il était une fois… (Once upon a time) and are often told in the passé simple (literary) tense. More contemporary stories will show you the way people really talk today – even how their words sound, if an author chooses to write things phonetically.
How to read in French
Reading in a foreign language can be daunting, even downright frustrating. Remember what I wrote about my “lessons” with Monsieur Lupin: It wasn’t all jumping over rooftops and stealing diamonds (or the Mona Lisa); I spent a lot of time looking up words and figuring out turns of phrase.
Here are five rules I’ve learned about reading in French:
Choose a story that interests you
Obviously, this isn’t always possible – for example, if you have to read a certain story for a class. But on your own, you’ll probably be able to find French stories that genuinely interest you. Hopefully, the list in this article will help with that. When you’re interested in a story, you’re more willing to look up vocabulary…and just to continue with it, even through tricky parts. After all, you want to find out what happens at the end, right?
Accept that reading in French (or any foreign language) isn’t like reading in your native language
No matter how fluent you become, your brain will have to work just a little harder, and you’ll probably still have a word you’ll need to look up now and then, or a tricky sentence that you have to stop and untangle, no matter how advanced your language level is. This might seem discouraging, but it’s actually the opposite; think of it as a continual source of learning. There are even be health benefits to reading in a foreign language: studies show that learning and working with a foreign language is excellent exercise for your mind, and may stave off dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Know that it will get easier
Although there’s always a chance you’ll come across some tricky vocabulary or grammar, reading in French will get easier. Just like anything else, practice makes perfect. Today, I can read an Arsène Lupin story or novel with much more ease than I did when I first began L’Arrestation d’Arsène Lupin years ago. And of course, that ease filters down to nonfiction, too, making things like newspaper articles and notes from my son’s school a breeze. So, stick with it.
Know what you’re getting into
If you’re just starting out, you probably shouldn’t pick up À la recherche du temps perdu and expect that you’ll be able to get through it with just a little effort. Start small, with short stories and fairy tales for kids, for example (For suggestions, check out the list a little further on in this article). Get comfortable with the general conventions of written French, and when you feel ready, move on to the next level.
Accept difficulty and defeat
No matter how proficient you become in French, it’s unlikely that you will never again have any kind of difficulty whatsoever when it comes to reading it. After all, there are some authors whose writing style may just be really hard for anyone to understand, even if they’re a native French speaker. So, if you’re struggling with one particular book or writer, don’t beat yourself up; try to understand why. Is it because of their vocabulary choice, the subject matter, the way they structure their sentences? Then, decide if you want or need to continue reading, and if you do continue, accept that you’ll need to use your dictionary and other resources. And keep in mind rule number two: Reading a challenging text in French can be frustrating, but it’s also an amazing learning opportunity and workout for your brain. The good news is, if the next thing you choose to read is even slightly easier, you’ll definitely feel the difference.
The best tools for reading in French
Now that we’ve covered all that, if you’re thinking you need a French dictionary, you’re right!
If you’ve got an intermediate or advanced level of French, you could download (or buy a print copy of) a purely French dictionary, where the words you look up are defined in French, not translated into your native language.
If you’re a beginner, it’s probably best to use a dictionary that translates French words into your native language. And let’s face it: If you need to understand a word almost instantly, this is the best option for any level.
It’s best to own a French or French-[your language] dictionary, not to borrow one. This way, you can take your time with the story you’re reading and not feel rushed because you have to give the dictionary back to your friend or the library. You can find print dictionaries in online and real-life bookstores, and if you prefer to go the lightweight (or, really, no-weight) tech way, you can find a list of several French-English and French [-other language] dictionary apps here . Good news – many of these are free!
As I pointed out in that article, the supremely easy, absolute best way to use your French or French-[your language] dictionary while reading is to sync the dictionary with your e-reader, so that you can highlight a word you don’t understand and instantly get its definition. I learned French before this kind of thing existed, and nowadays I still can’t help marveling at how easy it is to do this. It almost brings tears to my eyes.
Here is a guide to syncing your dictionary with an Amazon Kindle. For other e-readers, check the FAQ and help sections of their website.
Where to find French fairy tales and short stories
So, now we know why and how to read in French – but where can you find French fairy tales and short stories?
Most of the French fairy tales and short stories I’m going to list in this article can be found online. If I don’t provide a link, please believe there’s a reason for this, and just do a Google search for the story or fairy tale you’re interested in.
But be careful when you do. The French word for fairy tale is un conte or un conte de fées. This should make it easy to find stories in that category. But if you’re looking for short stories, it can be more complicated.
The French word for “short story” is une nouvelle, but this also means “a news item”. So, say you want to find a short story by your favorite contemporary Francophone author, Amélie Nothomb. You’d Google “Amelie Nothomb nouvelle” and would probably just find links to news items about her. This means you may have to play around a bit, for example searching for “nouvelles écrites par Amélie Nothomb” – or just “Amélie Nothomb bibliographie”.
Unfortunately, most contemporary short stories aren’t available for free online. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other, usually free or cheap, ways to get your hands on them. This list, from our article on French movies, offers some suggestions.
Now that we’ve got all that covered, let’s get to what you’ve probably been waiting for….WHAT to read in French!
The best French fairy tales
For many people, learning to read in a foreign language begins the same way learning in their native language did, with children’s stories. It’s true that stories for kids often use simpler language and are fairly short and entertaining. Reading fairy tales has an added bonus – since these are often stories most of us are familiar with, it’s easier to guess at or understand new vocabulary you may come across.
French culture also has a long history of fairy tales, from Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve and Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s first written versions of La belle et la bête (“Beauty and the Beast”), to Charles Perrault’s creation or retellings of numerous iconic fairy tales like Le petit chaperon rouge (“Little Red Riding Hood”), Le chat botté (“Puss in Boots”), and La belle au bois dormant (“Sleeping Beauty”).
And of course, even if they’re not French in origin, French kids (and adults) know and love classics like Boucles d’or et les trois ours (“Goldilocks and the three bears”), Les trois petits cochons (“The Three Little Pigs”), and Petit Poulet (“Chicken Little” or “Henny Penny”).
There are lots of different versions of these and many other fairy tales in French, so be sure to adapt them to your level. Remember that fairy tales have origins that date back centuries or longer, so if you want to read an original version of La belle et la bête, you’ll have to navigate older French expressions and grammatical structures. Older French is much easier to understand than older versions of a language like English, but it can still be tricky for beginners.
As a general rule, if your French level is intermediate to advanced, try the original version of a fairy tale. If your level is beginner to intermediate, think about a modern version of the fairy tale. Once you’re comfortable with it, you can revisit the fairy tale in its original form.
Here are some French fairy tales and where to find them:
- You can read the fairy tales collected by Charles Perrault in his book Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités :Contes de ma mère l’Oye here.
- You can read the two earliest versions of La belle et la bête (“Beauty and the Beast”) here and here(unfortunately, this last one isn’t available for free online, but the e-book version is very affordable).
- You can find lots of other French fairy tales and fairy tale-type stories, including both original and modern ones with themes like “Christmas”, etc., at this site.
- And here’s another site that offers an extensive list of French fairy tales and stories for kids (or us adults who like imaginative stories!).
- Another great resource for modernized, easy-to-read versions of several fairy tales in French is The French Experiment. The stories here also have an audio recording to go along with them, so you can get some listening practice, as well. I’d suggest listening and reading along.
Les Fables de La Fontaine
If you like fairy tales, you may also want to check out Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables, which are famous throughout the world. Of course, to be fair, the 17th century French poet actually adopted and adapted many of his fables from much older sources that came from places around the world. Still, his retellings are successful for a reason: He puts such life and personality into his characters and their stories, and many of his poetic turns of phrase are pretty great.
La Fontaine is also a major French cultural reference. Most children in French schools memorize at least a few of his fables, starting at a young age. My husband and I were shocked and delighted when my four-year-old son started reciting La cigale et la fourmi the other day! So, being familiar with these will plug you into a certain part of the growing-up-in-France experience, and can help you catch references and puns related to the fables in French TV shows, movies, books, newspapers, etc.
You can read all of La Fontaine’s Fables thanks to this free download.
Modern French fairy tale classics
The French passion for fairy tales didn’t end hundreds of years ago. Contes (fairy tales) and contes détournés (twisted fairy tales) are being written all the time here. Some of them may one day become classics. For now, the most recent fairy tales to receive that honor are probably those in two collections: Les contes du chat perché by Marcel Aymé (written in the 1930’s and ‘40’s) and Les contes de la rue Broca by Pierre Gripari (written in 1967).
Les contes du chat perché
Literally: The sitting cat’s stories; often translated as The Wonderful Farm) is a series of stories about a family with two little girls who can talk to and interact with the animals on their farm, including the titular cat. It’s probably best for intermediate and advanced-level French readers. Unfortunately, there’s no way to get a free copy online, but you can see if investing in this book (or trying to find it in one of our suggested ways) is worth your while, with the free sample intro and first story here.
Don’t be put off by complex intro, which is deliberately written in a sort of high-end French. The stories themselves are usually much easier to understand.
Les contes de la rue Broca (Tales of the rue Broca)
This fairy tale is set in Paris itself, although a rather imaginary version. It’s full of strange and often funny fairy tale figures, like la sorcière de la rue Mouffetard, a witch who’s found the recipe for eternal youth: eating a young girl with tomato sauce…but the young girl’s name has to start with an “N.”
Unfortunately, this book also isn’t available for free (unless you can find it at your local library), but you can buy it on sites like Amazon. Make sure that the version you buy is the complete one, not just a few selected stories. That means the book description should say either “unabridged” or “integral”. Here’s the latest unabridged version published in France and available internationally, which features cool illustrations and an audio CD so that you can listen along.
French short stories
If fairy tales and fables aren’t your thing, don’t worry. There are countless French short stories (nouvelles) out there, as well. You’re sure to find at least a few that you like.
Here are some that I can personally recommend:
French Short Stories for Beginners by Frederic Bibard.
Unfortunately, this book isn’t free (although you can read sample pages on Amazon). But I’m including it here because it’s really helpful. I have Bibard’s Italian version of this book, and it’s a really cool feeling to read a simple, straightforward story in a language you’re just starting out in, and really get it. The stories themselves are about everyday things, so you’ll get lots of useful vocabulary and expressions from them, and both the very reasonably-priced e-book and the print version include an audio option/CD that you can use to practice your listening skills or read along with.
La Nuit, or any other short story by Guy de Maupassant
Nineteenth century writer Guy de Maupassant is one of the masters of the French short story. You may even have read one of his works in your French class, as they’re fairly easy to read for intermediate and advanced speakers. His stories are often spooky or depressing (or both), and often give an intriguing glimpse into some aspect of 19th century life in France. If that last part doesn’t interest you, don’t worry – “spooky” or “unsettling” is usually what’s really in the spotlight.
My personal favorite story by Maupassant is La Nuit (“Night”), in which the narrator wanders through nighttime Paris and it gets inexplicably darker and darker. But if you don’t like that idea or if you want more Maupassant, here’s an awesome site with a huge list of free links to most of his short stories. You’ll see that these are available in different languages -for the original French version, just click on the title of the story.
Une passion dans le désert (“A Passion in the Desert”) by Honoré de Balzac
If you’re an advanced reader, check out this unforgettable story of a soldier who essentially falls in love with a panther. It’s a strange concept, but as you read, if you’ve ever been in love (or if you love love stories), you’ll realize that it’s also very familiar. The story, ultimately, isn’t about a man and a panther at all, but about the very nature of love. It’s sad, poetic, and haunting. You can find it for free here.
Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Cambrioleur (Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar) by Maurice Leblanc
Of course I’m going to include my “teacher” Arsène Lupin on this list! This short book is a collection of the earliest Arsène Lupin stories, the first of which, L’Arrestation d’Arsène Lupin (“The Arrest of Arsène Lupin”) , was published in 1905.
Perhaps because they’re plot-driven and not poetic or psychological, these stories are generally a bit easier to read than many other contemporary tales, although they can be challenging at times. But Monsieur Lupin is so charming and surprising that you’ll want to stop and look up anything you don’t understand so that you don’t miss the next twist in the story.
Le loup garou (“The Werewolf”) by Boris Vian
Writer and jazz musician Boris Vian (1920-1959) tackled an eclectic range of subjects in his stories and books, but one of the themes that often comes back is man’s cruel nature. He deals with that in a funny way here, with the story of Dennis, a kind wolf who lives in the suburbs of Paris and is cursed to transform into a man during the day. He wanders into the city and discovers just how monstrous humans can be.
This story is probably best for advanced readers, since it uses a lot of slang and wordplay. You can buy the eponymous story collection it comes in online, or look for it using the suggestions on our list.
If there’s a French or Francophone author you like, whether contemporary or classic, more likely than not they’ve written at least one short story. So, check out their official website or Wikipedia page (especially the original French version) for a list of their works. Then, do a search for the title of the story – you may end up finding a way to read it for free online.
Hopefully, this list has given you some stories to add to your French reading list – or even inspired you to read a fairy tale or short story in French for the first time. Bonne lecture et bon apprentissage! (Happy reading and learning!)
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