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Best Books to Read for Learning Spanish: A Science-Based Strategy for Beginners and Intermediates

Introduction: The Science of Stress and Language Learning

I’ve been working on an update to the Fluent Forever book for much of 2023 and 2024. It’ll come out in December of 2024, and one of the new sections revolves around Listening and Reading comprehension. Specifically, around how to leverage the science of stress to help you learn faster. I’ll explain: there’s an old concept in behavioral psychology that maps the relationship between performance and stress. It’s known as the Yerkes-Dodson Curve, and it reveals that there’s actually a good level of stress to have when learning, a level that will boost your retention and keep you engaged. If you get more stressed than that, you’ll start to feel anxious, frustrated, or totally burnt out. And if you get less stressed, then you’ll get bored and disengage. Here’s what it looks like:

The Y-D Curve has a lot of relevance to listening and reading comprehension, because it’s so common for those tasks to fall on the right side of the curve, either causing you to feel exhausted or totally burnt out after a few pages. In the updated version of my book, I walk through a bunch of techniques for helping learners adjust their stress levels to the optimal parts of the curve: techniques like reducing the duration of your reading practice, or shifting your goals away from comprehending literally every word. In this blog post, I want to focus on one of the best techniques of all: adjusting the vocabulary level of your reading materials.

To stay at an optimal stress level, you want to find books where you understand around 85-95% of the words you encounter. That’s around the spot where you can figure out most new words from their context alone, and you’ll still be able to follow the plot despite the words you don’t understand. The tricky thing about these books is that they’re hard to find; after all, how are you supposed to browse through all of Amazon to find the books that are at your level and are actually interesting to you? So to that end, I wanted to write out a resource guide to steer you in the right direction.

Let’s get started! My goal is to give you a handful of recommendations for both beginners and intermediates, spanning a few different genres, so that you can find something that you’d actually enjoy reading, rather than something that you’re muscling your way through. Maximizing enjoyment is actually a technique in and of itself; if you’re interested in the topic of a book, it’s going to reduce the stress associated with reading it, and make you less likely to hit the crappier parts of the Y-D curve.

Spanish Book Recommendations for Beginners and Pre-Intermediates (CEFR A1/A2)

At this fluency level, you’ll generally be looking at children’s books. There are two similar series of books I’d like to recommend first:

Papelucho by Marcela Paz

Manolito Gafotas by Elvira Lindo

Papelucho is a series of diary entries by a Chilean boy, and Manolito Gafotas is a series of adventures undertaken by a Spanish boy in Madrid. They’re pretty similar in theme, all-in-all, and if you like one, you’ll have 7-11 more books to read in that series. Manolito Gafotas can also be read alongside its audiobooks, which is one of my favorite ways to introduce yourself to reading. I suspect if you like one of these series, you’ll like the other. As for which to start first, it’s something of a toss-up, particularly if you’re studying Latin American Spanish, as the vocabulary will be slightly more aligned with your studies with Papelucho, but the audiobook+book setup that Manolito Gafotas can provide is really nice. For me, that gives Manolito the edge for LA Spanish learners, but try a Kindle sample of both and see which one does a better job of grabbing your attention. If, on the other hand, you’re learning Castilian Spanish, just go to Manolito; it’s the clear winner there unless the writing samples convince you otherwise.

If the whole adventures of a young boy theme isn’t your jam, I have two collections of short stories that I’d recommend instead. The first is Cuentos de la selva by Horacio Quiroga. It’s a series of short stories set in the jungles of Argentina and covers themes of natural beauty, respect for nature, and a hint of the supernatural.

The second is Short Stories in Spanish for Beginners by Olly Richards. Olly is a fellow polyglot, has done some webinars for the Fluent Forever community, and has done some simply brilliant work with this series of short stories designed for adult learners. Olly is likely the biggest proponent of reading as a language learning tool out there, and after spending more than a decade convincing people to read more, he launched a series of books dedicated to helping people find interesting content to read that’s also not overly difficult. In addition, these books come with recordings, so you can do the whole audiobook+book setup that I recommend starting with.

Spanish Book Recommendations for Intermediate Learners (CEFR B1/B2)

Start with “Aura” by Carlos Fuentes. Just do it. I have rarely seen reviews for an intermediate book that are this consistently good. They were so good, in fact, that I was tempted to sneak this one into the beginner’s recommendations with the caveat that it’d be extra hard but probably worth it. If you’re an intermediate, it’s simply a slam dunk. Eerie gothic horror meets psychological mystery novel, all while only using the present and future tenses of verbs, and still landing as a literary work of art.

If and only if the above description is a huge turnoff for you, then proceed to these other recommendations:

Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquivel is a sweet love story that revolves around food. It’s a mix of romance, family drama, and Mexican culinary traditions, and is really good writing while staying much lighter and sweeter than Aura.

If you’d like some collections of short stories, head to either Olly’s collection of short stories for Intermediates, or jump straight into trashy romance with 6 Scandalous Short Stories in Spanish.

At the intermediate level, you should also be able to handle Spanish translations of book series you’ve enjoyed in English, and that’s often a good way to jump in, as you’ll already be familiar with the plots and as such, you’ll have an easier time keeping track of things. To find the right title to search for on Amazon, first look up your target book series on Wikipedia, and then swap the page to your target language. The title(s) should be pretty easy to find somewhere on that page, assuming that you’re looking at a relatively popular series.

Remember, you’re going to learn best by picking something that’s in a genre you actually enjoy reading. Don’t feel compelled to go to The Classics or The Greats; if trashy romance is your thing, go do your thing. Your Spanish will thank you afterwards.

Go forth and learn! If you’d like to be notified once the new edition of Fluent Forever is released, jump on our mailing list here.

Disclaimer: as an Amazon Associate, Fluent Forever earns from qualifying purchases.


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