かがくのとも (Children’s Science Companion) is a monthly picture book series for 5-6 year olds. I’ve often thought that children’s books about science, nature and daily life would be more appealing to adult language learners than fairytales and stories about happy little foxes baking cake, and the かがくのとも series is precisely what I was envisioning. They present information about animals, the human body, arts and crafts and much more in a way that’s genuinely fun to read, accessible to beginning readers and useful, both in terms of introducing and reinforcing vocabulary that will certainly show up in more advanced material and learning things you may not have known before.
The かがくのとも books are all about 28 pages long, with varying difficulties and lengths – from 300 to 1000 words long – and they’re heavy on the pictures. You probably all have seen one of these books already: “Everyone Poops” by Taro Gomi. Others in that vein include はなのあなのはなし (The Story Of Nostrils) and あたまのなか (Inside Your Head). There’s also books about specific animals like moles and bats, stories about daily life such as こんなおみせしってる？ (Do You Know This Store?), ones that are more like regular picture books but with a nature-related angle and books that walk the reader through a particular craft or activity. For example, おめん つくってあそぼう (Let’s Make And Play With Masks) shows how to make an oni mask, which not only is good for practicing how to understand directions and learning vocabulary about creating things, but is inherently awesome.
If you’re just starting extensive reading and you have a decent grounding in basic grammar and vocabulary, I think the かがくのとも books would a fantastic place to start: their content is exceptionally well done, they’re very understandable and well-supported with pictures, and every single one I’ve read so far has been worth my time.
If you can get them used, they’re relatively cheap – generally around 250-800 yen – but even new they’re not horrible, closer to 900-1000 yen. I’ve written a lot about various sites from which you can order new or used books; just offhand bk1 looks like it has a lot of them new, and the Amazon marketplace has a lot of used ones, but the best I’ve found so far is Ehon Seikatsu which has a number of them for between 105 – 300 yen, and – bonus! – will ship overseas. One advantage these books have over most picture books is that they’re softcover, which drives the shipping cost down. Rather unusually, there is information about many of the newer ones (2001 on) in English, so if you find one you want, it may be possible to read more about it before you order it.
Although these are books, they come out monthly like magazines do, so it might be possible to special order them through Kinokuniya as if they were magazines. I haven’t tested that theory, and if it can be done I couldn’t say how much it might cost. If someone does contact Kinokuniya to ask about it, let me know the outcome!
This same publisher, Fukuinkan, publishes other monthly series of softcover children’s books; I haven’t read a book from each series, but I have read enough to feel comfortable recommending them anyway! The first two series are, like かがくのとも, related to science in some way, while the other series are just regular picture books.
- ちいさなかがくのとも (Little Children’s Science Companion): Even more basic stories about the natural world and daily life, targeted at 3-5 year olds and correspond to Level 1 books by my system. Emmie sent me one of these, and it’s one of the best Level 1 books I’ve read.
- たくさんのふしぎ (A World of Wonders): These are more stores in the vein of かがくのとも but they’re targeted towards elementary schoolers; I presume they correspond to level 3-4 books by my system, but I haven’t read any of them.
- こどものとも０.１.２. (Children’s Companion 0.1.2): These are picture books for babies between 10 months and 2 years; level 1 by my system.
- こどものとも 年少版 (Younger Children’s Companion): Picture books for children between 2-4 years old, probably level 1 by my system.
- こどものとも 中年向き (Children’s Companion 4-5 years): The next step up, for children between 4 and 5; probably level 1?
- こどものとも (Children’s Companion): The final “Children’s Companion” level, for children between 5 and 6; these are about level 2 by my system. I have a couple of these – again, courtesy of Emmie – and I really enjoyed them compared to most picture books I’ve read.
I wonder if Fukuinkan would consider releasing any of these as e-books? These are basically perfect for language learners, and it’s not like most five-year olds are running around with Kindles, so it wouldn’t cut into their target audience…
Spooky Town’s Slurpy Festival
Level 2 絵本, 32 pages, 350 words (est.) ★★★★★
If I was in charge of buying books for a high school or college extensive reading library, I’d get this one and the other two in the series, because everyone would be fighting over the chance to read them! For one thing, the wacky setting is much more fun than stories about happy bears baking cake, and for another thing, it really feels like something you’d never read in English. The human boy Ken and his tiger friend Torako get dressed up in yukata for the Slurpy Festival, a summer Japanese festival held in Spooky Town, a village of monsters and ghosts. There they meet a Jizō statue, Anguri Jizō, who leaves his shrine to join them in playing games, eating enchanted food and dancing. I won’t lie, the illustrations in this book would have terrified me when I was a kid, what with the three-eyed bunny and bakebakeyaki (like takoyaki, but with, shall we say, a side effect) but I think that’s precisely what older readers would enjoy! Its very weirdness helps make it feel less childish and more exotic. I would like to find more books like this one that are distinctively Japanese; it really helps you feel like you’re discovering something through your language studies that’s hidden from all those poor suckers that just speak English.
It’s a level 2 book with no kanji and spaces between words, and there are many pictures that help the reader understand what’s going on, but it’s a little more difficult than most level 2 books at this level because of the playful, conversational language. For example, in the sample text, there are words like いろんな（いろいろな）and でてる（でている）that might be difficult for a student who isn’t used to casual speech. It’s also filled with onomatopoeias; I would have had a better time on my first readthrough if I had known that べろろん meant something like “slurp” and あんぐり meant a gaping or wide open mouth, and more perceptive readers than me might be able to get this sort of thing from the pictures and context. So this book might be good for someone who has been reading long enough to be able to skip over unknown things and still enjoy the text.
Reading Tutor rates it as “normal,” mostly because of the non-standard, conversational language and onomatopoeias. It has no kanji.
Sample text (two pages of text)
「わあっ！ いろんな おみせがでてるぞ」
だれが じょうずに つれるかなぁ？
How to get it
To get it from Kinokuniya at the time I write this, you would have to special order it for ￥1,300 (about $16 at the time of this writing) plus tax and shipping. (However, another one of the books is in store, if you don’t want to deal with special ordering.) It’s on Amazon too, for ￥1,365, or less if used; as always, don’t forget the high cost of shipping if you’re outside Japan. It’s also on YesAsia for $23.99. You can also look it up on WorldCat to see if it’s at a nearby library. (I got it from the Seattle library.)
Don’t forget to check out the other books in the series, “Moving to Spooky Town” and “The Spooky Town Burglar.”
- Extensive reading is known as 多読, or tadoku in Japanese. To try it, start with very easy books (ones with no more than two or three unknown words per page), and follow these principles:
1. Don’t look up words in the dictionary while reading.
2. Skip over parts you don’t understand.
3. If you aren’t enjoying one book, toss it aside and get another.
Find something to read!
Hundreds of free books and stories online
Local bookstores and libraries
Buying new and used books online
For more information, read "What Is Extensive Reading?" and "Classification System."
To learn more about Kunihide Sakai, who developed the three principles of tadoku and has worked to popularize it in Japan for years, read this interview with him.
Finally, for more than you ever wanted to know about why I believe extensive reading is worth your time, read my tadoku manifesto.
Superfluous StatsBooks read: 303
Word count (since starting the blog): 380,500
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