Whether you’re a paperback lover (like me) or a digital reader, you’ve probably felt the frustration that ensues when you pick up your first book in a foreign language and you’re not able to understand more than a sentence without having to look up a word.
Reading in another language can be a daunting task indeed, but at the same time is such a necessary step towards successfully learning a language. You’ll start seeing the benefits quite soon, as it’ll expand your vocabulary and improve your sentence structure by exposing you to natural language in context.
In this post I’ll talk about the importance of reading early in your language journey, give some advice on how to tackle reading, and share eight books to read in Spanish to get you started.
Why reading in your target language is important.
Apart from helping you grow your vocabulary and grammar, reading in your target language will open a door to a new culture and a different way of thinking. When you learn a language through stories you get an example of how your target language is used—almost exactly in the same way as when you interact with people during real conversations.
With stories, you learn vocabulary in context. This means that you are more likely to learn the correct way to use a word or phrase. (Especially because you'll see it repeated many times throughout the story, as is often the case with important words.)
Don’t forget that input is such an important part of the learning process. Not just any input, however, but “comprehensible" input. This means consuming the kind of language that you can mostly understand by context. It’s OK even if something is a bit more challenging for you, so long as you can still follow what’s going on. This will force your brain to work and find meaning. That’s when you really start acquiring the language because your brain starts learning intuitively.
A couple of things to keep in mind before starting:
Choose a book that’s appropriate for your level.
This is one of the key things to consider before starting, and students tend to underestimate its importance. In my experience, it’s quite difficult to find material that is (a) suitable and compelling (b) at an appropriate level that (c) provides both a feeling of achievement and a sense of progress. This often leads to students getting disappointed and giving up on reading.
So, if you’re just starting, I’d suggest you to look into graded readers (texts designed for learners at specific proficiency levels) or parallel texts (a text in Spanish with a translation immediately below).
In other words, if you’re just starting out, I wouldn’t recommend going for Isabel Allende or Gabriel García Márquez. Yet. We'll get there.
Be ready to get a bit frustrated: accept that you won't understand everything at first
This is often so unacknowledged and yet is so important! What you want is to be getting used to word order, sentence structure, and new vocabulary in context. It’s about getting the main idea of each paragraph (or chapter), and then just continuing to read—even if you understand very little at first. It will get better, and go increasingly smoothly, so long as you keep at it consistently. I promise.
Anyway—without further ado, here are some books to get you started.
COMPLETE BEGINNER (A1): Your first steps...
Easy Spanish Reader by William Tardy
This book is a three-part text with 80 readings that advance in difficulty, and each section comes with post-reading exercises and Spanish-English vocabulary glosses in the margins. It also has a companion app that provides flashcards and audio recordings, plus some other interesting things to practice what you’ve read. It can be used for self-study (there’s an answer key at the end) or with a teacher.
- Part I describes the adventures of two high-school students involved in their Spanish club.
- Part II provides an account of some important episodes in Mexican history, spanning from the first colonizers to the present day.
- Part III is an adaptation of the classic story “Lazarillo de Tormes,” which allows you to practice your grammar and vocabulary skills while introducing you to Spanish literature.
Un día en Barcelona (A Day in Barcelona) by Ernesto Rodríguez
This book is actually part of a larger series. "Un día en..." (A day in…) is a collection of readings about different Spanish or Latin American cities: you’ll learn about these places through fictional stories, all the while acquiring vocabulary and grammar in context. The stories are all in Spanish and they include:
- Short stories that are divided into four chapters.
- Visual dictionaries which let you understand vocabulary without the need for a translation.
- Cultural information about each place (the local cuisine, history, etc.) At the end of the book there is some more detailed information that has been translated into different languages.
- Activities to practice the things you learned in each chapter.
- English, French, German and Dutch glossaries (in the Kindle version you can click on the numbers located next to key words to be automatically moved to/from these glossaries and their accompanying explanations.)
- Audio recordings for all of the stories.
In this particular book you’ll learn about Andrea, a musician. He has an important concert in Barcelona, but his instrument has suddenly disappeared. You’ll follow along as he tries to find a new one while also trying to navigate this charming city.
PRE-INTERMEDIATE (A2): Feeling the magic!
Short Stories in Spanish for Beginners by Olly Richards
The next step when it comes to difficulty is Olly Richards’ short stories. Olly is a well-known polyglot and language teacher who’s a faithful advocate for learning languages in context without using translation.
This book is comprised of eight stories that are each divided into 3 or 4 chapters. The stories are all in Spanish, but some of the words are bolded, which means you can find an English gloss of them at the end of the chapter in the vocabulary section. There are also some reading comprehension questions at the end of each chapter, plus a summary of each chapter.
El espantamiedos (Fear Scarer) by María José Ferrada
By Chilean journalist, poet, and author María José Ferrada (and illustrator Karina Letelier), this is a beautifully designed bilingual book about children’s fears and how to overcome them. It’s written in short paragraphs and simple sentences, and will expose you to a variety of vocabulary ranging from complex things like astronomy to mundane things like a matchbox.
Although this is a children’s book, it’s intended for native speakers of Spanish, and is therefore more challenging than my previous suggestions. There aren’t any glossaries or translations provided to help you understand the text—though the drawings do help a bit—so you’ll have to figure everything out by yourself. In other words, this is just what you need to start challenging yourself with Spanish literature!
INTERMEDIATE/UPPER INTERMEDIATE (B1-B2): Things are looking up!
Short Stories in Spanish: New Penguin Parallel Text, edited by John R. King
As mentioned above, parallel reading is a language learning exercise in which two texts are placed side by side: one text in the language you want to learn, the other one in your native language. This can be of great help during that awkward intermediate stage where you can’t quite find material at the right level for you, but you know it’s time to focus on exposing yourself to Spanish instead of working with textbooks. Parallel readers are kind of like a security blanket: you can dive right into the native material, knowing that the translation is there if anything really trips you up.
This volume follows in the footsteps of previous editions of the Penguin parallel reader, and it’s comprised of ten short contemporary short stories from different Spanish speaking countries. Ranging in themes and styles, you’ll read stories from new authors and and also stories from well-established ones like Peruvian Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, Spanish Javier Marías; Chilean Isabel Allende, and Argentinian Julio Cortázar—to name just a few.
10 años con Mafalda (10 Years with Mafalda) by Joaquín Lavado
Argentinian cartoonist Joaquín Lavado, better known as “Quino”, created this comic strip which ran from 1964 to 1973 and continues to be loved in many parts of the Americas and Europe. It is praised for its use of social satire as a means of expressing the author’s thoughts on real-life issues.
The strip showcases a six year old girl named Mafalda, who is meant to mirror the Argentinian middle class and progressive youth. She’s concerned about things like humankind and world peace, and she has an innocent but nevertheless adult-like attitude towards problems. As the years go by, new characters (Mafalda’s friends) are introduced.
This volume gathers the most important comic strips from the series’ ten-year run in newspapers (and later into books) for you to enjoy. It isn’t organized in a chronological order, but rather by character and by topic (school, holidays, etc.)
If you find it too challenging, there’s also an English version called ‘’Mafalda and friends’’.
ADVANCED (C1-C2): What a long, crazy journey it's been.
El Fantasista (The Fantasizer) by Hernán Rivera Letelier
Through the eyes of Chilean novelist Hernán Rivera Letelier—who until the age of 11 lived in the Algorta saltpeter mining town in norther Chile before beginning to work in the mines himself—we get a glimpse into the lives of the inhabitants of an ordinary mining town who are about to deal with two important events: the imminent closure of the mine and the final soccer game against their rival team from another mining camp. The Fantasizer appears as the "Messiah of the white ball,” as they call him, just in time to save the game… even though he’s never actually played a soccer game before.
With this novel, Hernan Rivera Letelier returns to his beloved "pampa salitrera” (salt mine plains), the sweltering mining camps, the struggles of living in such conditions, and the friendships that spawned from them.
A not so widely known fact about northern Chile and the countries neighboring it: the use of saltpeter found in the Atacama Desert (shared by Chile, Perú and Bolivia), marked the most important milestone in the history of the nitrate industry. This region was once an important source of nitrates (for fertilizer and other chemical uses including in gunpowder and fireworks), which were then exported to Europe and the US in the 1830s.
La sombra del viento (The shadow of the wind) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
La sombra del viento is a novel by the Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón that became a worldwide bestseller and has been translated into many languages. This is the ultimate advanced reading challenge! If you’re into suspense, mystery, and the supernatural, this the book for you.
This is the first book in the (4-part) "The cemetery of forgotten books” saga, and is set in 1940's Barcelona in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. The protagonist, Daniel Sempere, the son of an antiquarian book dealer in Barcelona, is taken by his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten books—a secret maze-like library that keeps rare and forbidden books. Daniel is drawn to one entitled "The Shadow of the Wind" by an author named Julian Carax, and he takes it home with him.
He falls in love with the story and wants to read more by the author… but when he begins searching for the author’s other works, he soon realizes the writer has gone missing, along with every copy of the ‘’Shadow of the wind’’ and most of his other works.
It may seem like an impossible task at first, but rest assured that if you start with small steps, you’ll start seeing results in no time. Reading is a skill, and if you make it a habit, you’ll dramatically improve your Spanish as a byproduct of enjoying yourself.
Whatever you choose to read, try to switch off the “analyzing” part of your brain that says you need to know every single word. Also, for now, read without trying to memorize all of the new words and expressions or trying to look up every word on the dictionary.
Of course, you can start with books that are outside of this list—just try to search for input that is comprehensible to you. In this case, I mean to say you should be reading material that’s neither too easy nor too hard. The ideal book is a bit challenging (so that you still learn something), but it’s not an impossible or overly frustrating task. You want to be enjoying yourself and picking things up here and there as you go.
Finally, be patient with yourself and accept that (at first!) you won’t understand everything. For now, the goal is just to get into the habit of reading. So long as you do that, books will do all the rest for you!