Virginia has a Bachelor's degree in Spanish and English Literature.
As a student of modern languages, I am acutely aware of the importance of reading for language acquisition. You can’t really master a foreign language to a native-level degree without it: reading will boost your vocabulary, consolidate your grammar knowledge, and make you more sensitive to registers and linguistic nuances.
What to Read in Spanish?
Selecting books adequate for your language level is crucial. Choose books difficult enough to challenge you and easy enough to understand most of what’s being said. You can test that by having a look at a random page. Can you understand the gist of it without using a dictionary? Are there still words that you don’t know? If you answered yes to both questions, you are on the right track.
The books I selected are generally for people who have a solid base in Spanish and want to progress to intermediate level. Some of them have been written specifically for language learners, some are children books, and some have parallel English translations to help you with comprehension.
How to Read in Spanish?
Reading to learn a foreign language is different to reading for pleasure. Here are some tips for reading literature in a foreign language:
- Read the story/book twice
- Try to guess the meaning of words from context
- Look up new words with moderation
Probably the biggest mistake you can make is to try to look up the meaning of every single new word in a dictionary. This may prove so frustrating that it might discourage you from further reading. Finding the balance between learning new vocabulary and enjoying the story is key.
My strategy is to read the same piece twice. The first time I do, I jot down the words whose meaning I cannot guess from context. I look them up in a dictionary once I’ve finished the first reading. Upon second reading, I consolidate the vocabulary I’ve just learnt and enjoy the story more.
Spanish Short Stories for Beginners by Olly Richards
Spanish Short Stories for Beginners was written to cater to the needs of Spanish language learners. There are eight short stories suitable for beginner and intermediate learners (from A1 to B1). The grammar and vocabulary simplified so you should be able to learn the language without even realising it. The book also contains questions about the texts you’ve just read, so you can check your comprehension. If you are not a complete beginner, you probably won’t need to use a dictionary at all, as the collection has word reference lists. The introduction contains some good tips on how to read in Spanish.
I found this book really useful when I just started my adventure with Spanish. It offers a variety of different genres, such as science fiction, crime, and thriller. My only quibble was that some stories lacked imaginativeness and didn’t always read naturally. However, this is the case with most books written specifically for language learners.
But the book’s simplicity is also its greatest advantage. Starting to read in a foreign language is a daunting task, and this collection of stories is a perfect transition from grammar learning to literature reading. You can attempt the book after learning Spanish just for a couple of months. The word reference lists are particularly useful and save the trouble of looking vocabulary up, which frequently causes frustration and can discourage you from reading. At times I found that some words I didn’t know were left out and other very easy were translated. That was just my personal opinion, though, and everyone will have a different impression.
The short length of the stories is an additional plus for beginners, as you can easily read the stories in one go. That will save you the frustration of long novels you’ll never finish. All in all, a perfect book for complete beginners.
Cuentos Pintados by José Rafael de Pombo y Rebolledo
There is nothing better to start your reading adventure in Spanish than children’s literature. Cuentos Pintados was written by José Rafael de Pombo y Rebolledo, who was a Colombian poet (in 1905, he was hailed the best Colombian poet). Now, he is mainly known for his children’s literature.
Cuentos Pintados contains fables and nursery rhymes and is beautifully illustrated by Ivar Da Coll. Text and image complement each other to create a unique reading experience. In my opinion, it is more difficult than Spanish Short Stories for Beginners, as the book uses more sophisticated vocabulary. That said, the pieces are extremely short, and so using a dictionary while you read is not frustrating. I recommend reading each fable at least two times for better comprehension.
I really enjoyed Cuentos Pintados. It is full of funny stories and interesting characters. Once you’ve got over the initial language difficulties, reading Cuentos Pintados is a real pleasure. I particularly recommend it to people interested in Latin American culture, as the book offers a fascinating glimpse into Colombian folklore. Cuentos Pintados contains some regional words and phrases, which to some learners might by confusing, but I enjoyed this opportunity to increase my vocabulary.
The illustrations are also a great aid to comprehension. The nursery rhymes make you remember words better and you may even want to learn one or two of them by heart. Cuentods Pintados will certainly give you the satisfaction of being able to understand literature written for a Spanish-speaking audience.
Mafalda by Quino
Mafalda is an Argentine comic strip written by Quino (the pen name of cartoonist Joaquín Salvador Lavado) and published from 1964 to 1973. It has been hailed as the best Latin American comic strip. And although the comic strip was last published a few decades ago, Mafalda still entertains and speaks to contemporary audiences.
The title protagonist is a 6-year-old girl who expresses surprisingly mature opinions on world peace, world hunger, racial problems, and corrupt politicians. However, with all that, she never stops behaving like the little girl she is. Putting socio-political criticism in the mouth of a little girl was a truly masterful touch – it allows Quino to explore global injustices from an innocent and questioning perspective.
Apart from Mafalda, the comic strip features a panoply of funny characters, who are caricatures of different members of society – Mafalda’s family and friends. I loved some of them, while others I found a bit annoying. Susanita, for instance, is the complete opposite of Mafalda. She is a stereotypical woman who thinks about gossip, clothes, and family life. Although she might be a bit annoying to contemporary feminists, the contrast between her and Mafalda is a wonderful source of humour and satire.
I absolutely fell in love with Mafalda. This funny and engaging comic strip made me want to keep on reading, and so I absorbed a lot of new words without even realising it. Although Mafalda doesn’t have a lot of text, you can pick up some pretty sophisticated vocabulary. The visual aspect is so appealing that it doesn’t feel like reading at all, which allows you to avoid the frustration of longer pieces. The political critique is thought-provoking and it allows you to articulate complex social issues in Spanish from early on.
Short Stories in Spanish Penguin Parallel Texts
Short Stories in Spanish contains stories written by the following authors: Soledad Puértolas, Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Javier Marías, Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Laura Freixas, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Julio Cortázar, and Juan Benet.
All the stories in the original are accompanied by their respective translations in English with numerous footnotes on translating choices. This book is for ambitious beginners and intermediate learners. The complexity of language vary across authors, but all of them are quite challenging. This is a good thing though – you can refer back to this book when your fluency in the language increases.
The stories I enjoyed most were probably María dos Prazeres by García Márquez and Second Time Round by Cortázar, probably because these are authors I have engaged with before. Cortázar’s story was quite challenging from a linguistic point of view, but also very rewarding and interesting. But I also discovered other authors, whom I didn’t know previously and I enjoyed immensely, such as Javier Marías or Antonio Muñoz Molina.
The book’s diversity is definitely its greatest strength. If you don’t enjoy a story, you can just skip it and choose a different one. Probably the greatest challenge of the collection is the question of approaching parallel translations. Which version do you read first – Spanish or English? Or do you read them simultaneously, sentence by sentence?
The approach that worked for me was to attempt the original first. If, after reading the first page, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, I would read the English translation and then go back to the original. Once you know what happens in the story, you can focus more on the language.
Note that many of the stories here are challenging to read. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone below A2 level. However, reading and understanding a story written for a Spanish-speaking audience is immensely rewarding.
Bodas de sangre, Yerma, La casa de Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca
I first read Lorca’s plays at university. I think that plays are much easier to read for beginners than more dense prose forms such as short stories and novels. Less text means that it will be less frustrating for you to look up vocabulary you don’t know. Lorca employs a lot of symbols, which means that certain words and topics recur throughout the play like a refrain, which will help you consolidate new vocabulary.
The plays in this book belongs to Lorca’s rural trilogy and deal primarily with the oppression of women in rural settings.
Bodas de sangre’s heightened lyricism makes it probably the most difficult to read for Spanish learners. It tells the story of a clash between passionate love and conventional marriage. Here you can watch the full version of Bodas de sangre in Spanish
Yerma deals with the drama of an infertile woman who desperately wants to have a child. Here you can watch the full version of Yerma in Spanish:
Out of the three, La casa de Bernarda Alba was my favourite one. This is one of the most famous plays by Federico García Lorca. It tells the story of the story of a domineering mother who imprison her five children in the house for a mourning period. This is Lorca’s last play before he was murdered at the onset of the Spanish Civil War. Many critics concur that it is also his finest and most mature work. The play engages with the theme of female desire, women’s oppression, Catholicism, and how social constraints inhibits human happiness.
If you find that you are struggling with reading Lorca, I would advise you to read the English translations first or watch theatrical performances.
Here you can watch the full version of La casa de Bernarda Alba in Spanish so that you can understand it better
Janisa from Earth on March 16, 2018:
A good option is also kids books. You may find it depressing at first if you see that you don't understand half the stuff in a book for five year olds, but with time you'll begin understanding more and more. I've been doing this with Portuguese and less than a year later I'm reading a 400+ page chapter book without looking up anything. Of course, there are some words I don't know, but they don't mess with my understanding of the story in any way
threekeys on February 14, 2018:
I may just read these books. A nice way to get a feel for Spanish. I have been promising myself I will learn Spanish but have yet to do it.:) Peace and Happiness to You and Your Loved Ones.
AYOOLA RASAQ on February 14, 2018:
True experience is the best teacher