If you’re learning French and want some fairly simple reading material, here’s a list of books, book series and authors to get you started. Some are freely available, others aren’t.
Books for children are basic by design—at least in language, that is. They don’t have to be basic in ideas. The best example is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novel, Le Petit Prince. Like a good Pixar movie, it’s for kids but has been enjoyed by adults worldwide. The novel is in the public domain in Canada, so you can read it on wikilivres. You can also find an English translation to help you out, or listen to the wonderfully soothing voice of French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant read it to you on YoutTube.
If Le Petit Prince isn’t your thing, try René Goscinny’s Le Petit Nicholas series of books. The action movies quickly, the vocabulary is easy and they’ll make you laugh just before they make you smile.
Verne was a nineteenth-century French adventure and science fiction writer whose fantastic ideas you probably know better than you think you do: trips to the Moon, to the centre of the Earth, to the bottom of the sea; shipwrecks on mysterious islands; travelling around the globe in eighty days. That last one’s even been adapted into a movie with Jackie Chan. Anyway, Verne’s imagination is a thing to behold and despite the age of his books, you can behold it quite easily in the original French. You can find many of his works in a variety of digital formats on this website.
Speaking of Jackie Chan, Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours is a good novel to start with. The title tells you the plot and you’re already familiar with the details. Plus, like with Le Petit Prince, there’s usually an audiobook around, too.
Egmont’s Easy Readers Series
Egmont is a Danish publisher that publishes a series called Easy Readers, which are well known books that have been rewritten to make them simpler to read for language learners. Their French books are divided into four levels based on the vocabulary required to read them. The Beginner level requires a knowledge of 300-400 words, the Elementary level requires 650 words, the Intermediate level requires 1200-1800 words, and the Advanced level is 2500 words or more. The books in the first two levels are aimed more towards kids, but by the Intermediate stage you’re reading Georges Simenon, Marguerite Duras and Jean Cocteau. Egmont’s official page for the French Easy Readers is here.
Guy de Maupassant
Sometimes a short story is more manageable than a novel, in which case there’s Guy de Maupassant, one of the best short story writers in any language. The best place to get your Maupassant fix is here. You can read in the original French and in translations. The language is more challenging than you’d find in children’s books or in the first three levels of Egmont’s Easy Readers, but the bite-size nature of the short story as well as the fact you can read them in English if you get stuck tempers the extra difficulty.
Camus, Sartre & Voltaire
Albert Camus and Jean-Paul (“Existentialism”) Sartre don’t sound like easy reading because they’re not easy thinking, but give them a shot. They both admired and disagreed with each other, at times espousing conflicting worldviews, and by trying both you can see which—if any—you agree with more. I usually side with Camus. His most famous works are the novels L’Étranger (here) and La Peste (here).
For Sartre, try a play, such as Huis Clos (here).
And if you’re going down the philosophical route and want to feel extra cultured, load up a copy of Voltaire’s Candide, which you can find on the Project Gutenberg website. It’s a little more challenging than the other suggestions but not nearly as hard as you might imagine an eighteenth-century satire to be.