All of these books are available for free online, once you’ve signed up for EhonNavi. Click here for my EhonNavi registration walkthrough. To read the book, find the orange button marked 全ページためしよみする, but be aware you can only read the book once and EhonNavi is rather buggy, or maybe just picky; they recommend IE or Firefox on Windows. They’re sorted by word count, because not all picture books are the same difficulty, and in my experience it’s the quickest way to find out how hard the book really is. In the interest of not taking forever to catalog them, I just have the name translation and word count.

I’ve added a ♬ next to books I think have some cultural content. This is pretty subjective, of course.
I’ve added a ❤ next to books I particularly liked.

Continue reading »

 

This baby ate my brain.
Liana holding Milo in front of the Christmas tree.
Yeah, this one. If you have any maternal or paternal instincts I imagine you’re thinking “No wonder she went off the rails! That looks like a high-maintenance little cutie pie.” And if you don’t, perhaps you’re thinking “Yep, that sure is another new human all right. So, about that tadoku?”

About that tadoku.

I found out I was pregnant on a weekend trip to Seattle. I had taken a couple of my favorite Zorori books with me and I still haven’t finished them. It was my first pregnancy and not only did it take a lot out of me it required a lot of reading in English as I educated myself on what form of fruit the fetus might be compared to each week, exactly what pain management options were available during childbirth and how I would be keeping the resulting infant alive afterwards. I’ve been lucky, as my pregnancy, birth experience and time with the baby have all been smooth and altogether the happiest time of my life. It’s only since the end of December, though, that I’ve been regularly getting a full night’s sleep.

Somehow that sleep is the difference between a Liana who has vague ideas of doing things someday, perhaps when I’m in the nursing home, and a Liana who might actually get some reading done. I feel like myself again for the first time since I started this adventure! It’s not that I have had no free time, it’s more that, you know how you get in a flow state where it’s like everything is coming together and you’re concentrating and learning and having fun? Being on call with this little guy constantly creates the opposite state of mind.

When I started extensive reading, my goal was to read a million words, and I estimate I got to 370,000 or so. I felt like I was somewhere between a second and fourth grade reading level, and I’d started tackling a few more difficult books. I don’t feel like I can pick up where I was immediately, so I was thinking I’d try a warmup with some picture books from Ehon Navi. When I first wrote about them there were maybe 350 books available, and now there’s 813! There are probably libraries in Japan that don’t have 813 picture books. It’s an astonishing resource, and I’d like to use it to warm up and make it a little more accessible to beginning readers at the same time. Before, I wasn’t able to read them because of their system requirements, but now it seems that Firefox on the Mac will let me. (There is also a file floating around with screenshots of some of the books. Out of respect for the awesomeness of the website it only seems fair to me to read them online if I can, but if anyone else is having problems…)

I’m feeling ambitious now that I’m caught up on sleep, and there’s so many other things I want to do, but for now I’m going to try reading and writing about some of these Ehon Navi books. Long-term, I’d like to change the whole format of my site, I don’t think it’s very easy to sort out information with the way it is now. But in the short term I’ll settle for reading a couple of picture books!

Tagged with:
 

Yes, there’s a reason my twitter stream suddenly went from chatter about Japanese to sporadic complaints about how tired I am: I’m pregnant! I’ve known since mid-August, but the chance of miscarriage drops off significantly after twelve weeks, so I wanted to keep it quiet until then (although at least one person did guess from my tweets, it seems). So far things are normal, but as it turns out, what’s “normal” in the first trimester can actually be pretty weird – I’ve been exhausted, horrendously nauseous and have developed aversions to food, prenatal vitamins, toothpaste and other useful things. Even better, I’ve had trouble concentrating on anything more challenging than “Dancing With The Stars” (yes, seriously) and so Japanese – along with most of the rest of my life – has been right out. Glory hallelujah, the first trimester weirdness is supposed to fade in the second trimester, and I have indeed been feeling better recently.

So I’ve been hitting the baby books, but I miss Japanese, and I’m feeling alert enough to read at least a little bit this month! I got another glorious package of books from Emmie the other day, and it includes some from my favorite series and some that I’ve been dying to read for months (or even years, for a couple of them). I’m most excited about some of the タイムスリップ探偵団 series, which is apparently some sort of time-travel detective series for kids around 4th or 5th grade where a group of kids encounters famous personages from Japanese history. They’re more complex than other books I’ve read so far, so I’ll have to work up to them with a little Zorori first.

Happy reading, everyone!

 

This is a list of all the Level 1 books that are available for free online through EhonNavi; it’ll be updated as I keep reading them.

From Extensive Reading in Japanese, the definition of a Level 1 book:

Level 1: Hiragana and katakana only. The text is very short, and has one-word sentences, phrases, and some complete sentences. There are plenty of visual aids to help convey meaning. Japanese native readers would be three to six years old.

All of these books are available online, as long as you sign up with EhonNavi for free. (Need help signing up? Click here for a walkthrough in English.) There’s one catch: you can only read a book once. Once you open it and finish it, you will not be able to open it again; once you reach the last page, if you try to go back to previous pages they will be pixelated. So take care before opening a book, and if you want to review anything, be careful not to hit the last page accidentally.

Please feel free to send me reviews of these! Having descriptions in English should make them more accessible to beginning readers, so the sooner we get them up the better.

もこ もこもこ
Bulge Bulge
作:谷川 俊太郎(たにかわ しんたろう, Tanikawa Shintarō)
絵:元永 定正(もとなが さだまさ, Motonaga Sadamasa)
Level 1 絵本, 28 pages, 16 words ★★★★☆

This book has just 16 words, and all of them are 擬態語 or 擬音語 – that is, gitaigo or giongo, onomatoepic words based either on emotional states or sounds. Once you know that detail, this is a great one to challenge yourself to understand without looking up anything, because even if you don’t know a single word you can still understand things because of the pictures. (This is, after all, the top rated book for babies, and babies don’t know onomatopeia any better than you do.) Read it aloud, pay attention to the action while enjoying the pretty colors and try to guess what some of those crazy words mean.


つみき
Building Blocks
作:中川ひろたか(なかがわ ひろたか, Nakagawa Hirotaka)
絵:平田利之(ひらた としゆき, Hirata Toshiyuki)
Level 1 絵本, 26 pages, 27 words ★★★★☆

A charming way to practice counting. Thanks to the illustrations and the tiny amount of words, this one shouldn’t require too much prior vocabulary to read. (Rule of thumb: fewer words = generally easier.)


くんくん、いいにおい
*sniff sniff* That Smells Good!
作/絵:たしろ ちさと(Tashiro Chisato)
Level 1 絵本, 32 pages, 72 words (est.) ★★★★☆

A young boy’s descriptions of everyday smells. This one also has some nice illustrations of family life: everyone bathing together is a きもちいいにおい and lighting sparklers is a なつかしいにおい.


あいうえおのえほん
A-I-U-E-O Picture Book
作:よこたきよし(Yokota Kiyoshi)
絵:いもとようこ(Imoto Yōko)
Level 1 絵本, 96 pages, 200 words (est.) ★★★☆☆

A lot of あいうえお books suffer (from the beginning learner’s point of view) from including words that are relatively uncommon. This one is, however, much better for learners than most of the others I’ve seen, and it highlights a lot of animal names you’ll want to know. (Hint: If it’s got a さん after it, it’s usually an animal name.) The sentences feel kind of fragmented, so they might be a little confusing, but the illustrations are lovely.


あいうえおべんとう
A-I-U-E-O Lunchbox
作/絵:山岡 ひかる(やまおか ひかる, Yamaoka Hikaru)
Level 1 絵本, 40 pages, 150 words (est.) ★★★★☆

Another good あいうえお book, really fun if you like Japanese food, and one that you could read without very much vocabulary since the text that isn’t food names is limited and repetitive. This one forms bento (lunch boxes) out of various foods based on the hiragana syllabary, so you can get acquainted with common foods while you practice reading. A lot of foods are more commonly written in katakana, and they have katakana readings given in blue. So be aware that when you read this book, if there’s a blue word, that’s the one you should actually pay attention to – no one writes とまと, it’s always トマト, and this is just kind of an annoying artifact of learning from kids’ books because adults seem to think that easy books need katakana glosses. Don’t forget that tadoku is reading for fun, so don’t feel like you need to memorize all the food names — I don’t know all of them, and I’m fairly well versed in Japanese food.

 

Is it Saturday already? Rather more to the point, is it already three Saturdays after my previous update? I did actually read between that update and this one, but I haven’t totaled up my words, so that may have to wait until tomorrow if I am feeling ambitious, or possibly even next week. Real life has been claiming my attention in a pretty huge way… Let’s say I’ve got a new project. Haven’t abandoned this one, though! I’m just distracted, and actually rather exhausted.

What have you been reading lately?

 

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.

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…

Wow, I seriously didn’t read anything this week — partly because I just wasn’t into it (the first part of the week) and then I got a bit of a cold (the second part). That’s OK, there are off weeks too. I’ve got a lot of awesome books to read when I do get back into the right mood for it, because my latest shipment from Emmie showed up! I read one this evening, bringing me up to 364,010 words (a difference of 4,000 words, or one わんわん探偵団 book) and I have a feeling I’ll read much more next week. I’m atoning with a post about buying new/used books which should be easier to untangle than the other one I wrote, and I’ll have some more posts up this week as well.

So I would like to to start listening to more Japanese music, and I was hoping you all could come up with some recommendations. My music tastes are all over the map in general: you can look at my last.fm profile to try to figure it out, but it may or may not do you any good. It’s hard to say what exactly I do like, but I tend to find joy in most things I listen to if they’re performed well and with sincerity. What I like to listen to is also very dependent on what I’m doing — if I’m working or concentrating on writing in English or Japanese, I generally can’t listen to anything with lyrics in a language I understand, so at those times I listen to a lot of classical music and video game soundtracks. So what I’m looking for is music to listen to while I’m walking, doing chores or not doing anything very seriously; for immersion purposes it should be music with lyrics that aren’t mumbled.

I only have random bits of knowledge about Japanese music. I love old-fashioned sad music of any type, so I imagine I’d enjoy enka; my knowledge of that is limited to a Hibari Misora album (which I love) and the songs off the Kill Bill 1 and 2 soundtracks, though. I have an inexplicable weakness for the kinds of upbeat songs that show up as the opening songs in shounen anime. Classic songs that everyone knows would be fun, too. Not so much on cute idols whose dancing is better than their singing, but who knows, maybe I’d be surprised.

Music I can buy from iTunes would be nice, but I can go to Kinokuniya too. I’m up for anything, I just don’t particularly know where to start. Any ideas?

 

Ordering New Books

Ordering new books is a pretty straightforward process, but the price you’ll pay can vary wildly: I’ve listed four options here, and for the record I’d probably go with Kinokuniya myself. All information may change, so please check shipping rates and so on yourself before ordering.

Kinokuniya

Pluses

  • Huge selection; many books can be special ordered
  • The prices are fair: they’re generally about the same as ordering a new book from a Japanese online store, once shipping is taken into account. (Sometimes they’re rather more expensive, sometimes they’re actually cheaper)
  • If you order $100 worth of books from the same store, shipping is free. (This may also apply to $100 worth of books that are special ordered, but I haven’t done that yet so I can’t verify it.)
  • Shipping is very reasonable: between $6 and $10 based on the value of your order (not weight), and free if you buy $100 worth of books from the same store
  • You can buy a Kinokuniya membership for $20 that gives you 10% off any books you buy
  • To a limited degree, you can switch between Japanese and English text; there’s also ordering information written in English and customer service in English
  • No handling fee

Minuses

  • Shipping is only combined if you order books from the same store, so you can’t get free shipping if you order $50 worth of books from the Seattle store and $50 from the San Francisco store
  • Website is horrible to navigate: there’s no good way to browse books, you can’t filter results by availability or which store they’re in, and there are no extra services like links to related books or wishlists
  • I don’t know if you can buy a membership online or over the phone, and I’m not sure if you can get your discount if you’re ordering online; I’ve been told that you just write down your number when you make your order; I’ve also read that it can’t be used for online orders. I haven’t tested it myself, yet.

bk1

Pluses

  • Seems to have a very large selection
  • Unlike amazon.co.jp, there’s no handling fee; the base prices seem to be about the same, so this alone makes bk1 a consistently better option than Amazon
  • You can choose several different shipping options, and your shipping cost will be based on the weight of your books and the shipping option you choose

Minuses

  • It’s all in Japanese, so may be intimidating
  • Overseas shipping costs are determined after your order is placed, so it’s hard to estimate how large your order will be or how many shipments it will wind up being

YesAsia

Pluses

  • All in English; may be the easiest for beginners to navigate
  • Decent selection
  • Free shipping on orders over $39
  • Children’s books sorted by categories
  • No handling fee

Minuses

  • Slightly higher prices than Kinokuniya; the lower threshold for free shipping may balance this out if you are only ordering a few books
  • The selection doesn’t seem as large as that of the other sites

Amazon.co.jp

Pluses

  • Huge selection
  • Site is easy to navigate: English options if you need them, wish list, book recommendations, reviews, same general setup as the English amazon
  • Fast delivery
  • If you’re in Japan, or have someone to send them to, domestic shipping for new books is free and there’s no handling fee.

Minuses

  • Just one option for shipping outside Japan, which is International Express Shipping, 2-5 days, ¥2,700 (to North America); it’s a flat fee, so even if you’re just ordering one book you pay the whole ¥2,700
  • There is a 300 yen handling fee per item
  • These two considerations mean that one of the other stores are almost always going to be cheaper

Unanswered Questions

  • You pay 2700 yen per shipment, and it seems unconnected to the weight; would it be possible to order a large shipment of books for the same shipping fee? The book’s full price + 300 yen fee would probably make that no better than ordering from another store, but I’m curious. There must be a catch!

Ordering Used Books Online

If you’re at all able to order used, do so! Many books are so cheap used that even with the cost of shipping, they’re still a much better deal than new books.

I’ve found one used bookseller that will ship overseas, Ehon Seikatu, and would always like to hear about more! Unfortunately, many other used booksellers won’t ship overseas or won’t combine shipping, so you either have to be in Japan or ask a friend in Japan to let you use their address when ordering, then repack and send the books to you, after which you would repay the cost of shipping (and send a thank you note and something nice).

There are buying services who can do the same thing, but for a product as cheap as used books, the handling fee they charge per item would mean it’d probably be just as sensible to buy the book new. (Let me know if you find any reasonable services.)

For English information on shipping from Japan, read the Japan Post’s website. I’m both cheap and patient, so I always go with surface mail, which costs ¥2,700 (around $35) for the largest possible shipment (5,000 grams, about 11 pounds) and takes 1-3 months.

Ehon Seikatu (Picture Book Life)
Pluses

  • They will ship overseas!
  • Good selection, lots of ways to find books (by series, by target age group)
  • There doesn’t seem to be any sort of handling fee (although there could be one that I’ve overlooked – let me know if you buy from them)
  • You can search by price range
  • :

Minuses

  • If you use something like Rikaichan to navigate complicated websites in Japanese, the graphics-based interface will frustrate you
  • Shipping costs are calculated after you place your order
  • Does seem to be really just picture books

Amazon.co.jp Marketplace

Pluses

  • Can use the easy-to-use Amazon system to find books
  • Many books available, many of them very cheap (as cheap as ¥1)
  • Condition of each book described in detail and rated as 可 (fair), 良い (good), 非常に良い (very good) ほぼ新品 (nearly new). (Buyer beware, of course, but the 可 and 良い books I’ve bought have seemed to me to be perfectly fine.)
  • No handling fee

Minuses

  • For domestic shipping, there’s a ¥250 yen fee for each book
  • Many sellers won’t ship overseas, and for those that can, shipping can’t be combined, so you would be paying 1 yen for the book and the full price (¥2,700) to ship it
  • Not all books are particularly cheaper used, or even available used

Book-off online

Pluses

  • Many used books at really low prices
  • For domestic orders, if you order more than ¥1,500 at one time, shipping is free
  • So if a book is ¥1 on Amazon and ¥250 or less on book-off online, and you’re buying enough at once to get the free shipping, book-off online is the better choice
  • No handling fee

Minuses

  • Not as much selection as Amazon’s marketplace
  • No indication of condition for individual books, if that matters to you (everything I’ve got from them has been fine, so YMMV)
  • They will not ship overseas

Graded readers are books written for adults or children learning a second language. Each series is split into a number of levels and the vocabulary and sentence structures used at each level are standardized, so that readers can find a level at which it’s comfortable to read. Although their language is simpler than that used in authentic material, the subjects are designed to hold the interest of older learners. There are thousands of them written for people learning English as a second or foreign language, such as the Cambridge English Readers and Penguin Readers, and many Japanese people doing extensive reading in English start out with them. At the moment, however, there’s only one series of graded readers for learners of Japanese that I’m aware of: the よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library) series, created by the 日本多読研究会 (Japanese Graded Readers Research Group).

If you look at the information for each level, you’ll get an idea of who these might appeal to most:

Each volume includes a CD which has recordings of all of the stories it contains; those recordings are very well done, and great for listening to as you read along, using for shadowing or putting on your mp3 player and listening to them while you do dishes. There’s no English whatsoever in any of the stories, nor are there any sort of comprehension questions, activities or glossaries. Each reader includes the golden rules of tadoku — that is, starting from an easy level, not looking up words while reading, skipping over parts you don’t understand and getting another book if you’re not enjoying the one you’re reading. If this was your first introduction to extensive reading and you skipped straight to the stories, you might not even realize that those guidelines existed. (Pictures might have been helpful here.)

There are various places to buy these – Kinokuniya, YesAsia, off of the American Amazon or the Japanese one and so on, but so far, for someone outside Japan, at the moment they are consistently cheapest at White Rabbit Press. At the time I write this, they are $28.88 each, and shipping is based on the weight, your location and the delivery method you choose; you can’t estimate shipping until you check out, but for a volume shipped to me here in Washington State, standard shipping (2-4 weeks) is about $7-$9, expedited shipping (1 week) is $12-$14 and express mail service (3-5 days) is $26-$29. There are too many variables to know exactly how much you might pay for each one, but I am going to make my calculations based from the idea that each volume costs about $37 from White Rabbit Press with the cheapest shipping.

Three notes before I go on:

  • White Rabbit Press has some sort of affiliate system, but I’m not part of it. If there’s a cheaper way to buy these, I’ll happily recommend it instead.
  • You can buy them used from Amazon at times, but at the moment not all of them are available used, and at the moment even the used ones are more expensive than they are at White Rabbit Express. Still, you may as well check there before you buy elsewhere. (You also might be able to get them used from other learners: I have Lan’dorien to thank for most of mine!)
  • If anyone finds a cheaper way to buy them, or if any other places to buy them periodically have sales which would make them cheaper, by all means let me know!

So the question is: if you have a spare $37, is it better to buy one of these or to try to find a couple of authentic books at the same level?

The main advantage that graded readers have over authentic material is that they’re able to introduce the idea of extensive reading and the skills, gains in confidence and pleasure that come with it even to beginners. If you treated these readers like vocabulary lists you’d be missing the point, because their purpose is to help you learn two things: how to read quickly and automatically, and how to understand unknown words from context using the information that you already have. These are skills that are probably easier to learn with graded readers than they are with more unpredictable authentic material. Because they’re presented in a controlled way, there shouldn’t be many words or parts you don’t understand, making it easier to read quickly and to learn how to isolate and make guesses about unknown material.

They also get you used to the feeling of reading at your fluent reading level and give you the experience of being able to successfully finish and completely comprehend stories in Japanese. They also take out some of the guesswork in picking out appropriate books; even among picture books, some are quite easy, most are in a sort of general range and some of them are surprisingly difficult. If you’re a beginning reader you may not be able to tell the difference immediately, meaning that you may have a frustrating experience with a deceptively easy-looking book through no fault of your own. If you can read one level 1 graded reader, on the other hand, you should theoretically be able to read all of them. For learners who are less confident in their Japanese skills, or can’t stand not being able to understand what they’re reading, these may also be particularly helpful.

By design, they don’t last too long: after all, you’re supposed to read them at a level that feels easy for you, and if you’re not able to read them reasonably quickly, it’s a sign you’re trying to read at too high of a level. So even though the stories don’t cost too much individually, it may seem like a high expense for something that feels so fleeting, and they are only a sliver of what you would need if you wanted to pursue extensive reading as a primary learning strategy. For that reason, I think that they would be great as supplements to Japanese courses of any level or as an addition to a library’s collection, because that would make them available to more people and lessen the individual student’s financial burden. As a matter of fact, I would think that if they’re not being marketed directly to Japanese teachers they should be.

For individual students, whether or not they’re worth the expense probably depends on where you are in your studies. The short answer is that I think they could be useful for beginning to intermediate learners, as advertised, but they would be best for true beginners and people who are at the point where they could take levels 5-3 of the the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (by the new system – 4 and 3 by the old system).

If I was starting Japanese from the beginning, I would buy at least the level 0, 1 and 2 volumes, because it would be great to get some of the benefits of extensive reading that early on. At the lower levels, these graded readers are far superior to authentic material, because equivalent authentic material doesn’t exist: specialized childish vocabulary and writing styles make real Japanese children’s books less useful for beginners than they might seem, so you would have to study longer to actually read them at all fluently and not get all that much out of them, whereas these graded readers you can fully understand very early on. God knows I’ve spent more money on much less useful books, and spread out over a couple years of studying, the cost wouldn’t be so bad.

If you’ve studied for a while and would like to try tadoku, the level 2-3 volumes (possibly level 1 or level 4 depending on your ability) might be a good, low-stress place to start, but if you’re already able to read books that are level 2 by the system I use (that is, picture books), and you have a good supply of those books available to you – then maybe, maybe not. I think they generally would be useful, but you do have to consider the expense. (And, when making this calculation, keep in mind that there are a lot of things to read for free online.) Again, I think that the main value of these graded readers is that they help make you confident about reading and teach you the skills needed to read quickly. In that sense they’ll be more fun and generally provide a better experience than a lot of other things you could read, as authentic books can be pretty erratic in terms of difficulty and how interesting their content is.

If you’re studying for JLPT level 2 or have at least a first grade reading level (that is, around level 3 by the system I use) and have access to appropriate authentic material, I’d have to say that the higher-level readers might be fun and useful but wouldn’t be as valuable to you as the lower-level readers would be to beginning students; I think at this point you’d generally be better off with real books. The disadvantage is that the real material you would be using would be at a lower level with less kanji and less adult subject material, but an advanced reader might blow through even the level 4 readers and then find that authentic books that looked the same at the first glance are actually still above their fluent reading level, because those books use so much more vocabulary. Again, though, if you don’t have the skills needed for understanding words through context by this point, the graded readers might be a better way to practice those than authentic material. I think I’m about at a point where I would be lucky to pass JLPT 2, and at the time I bought these I already had practice reading and understanding things through context; although I’m glad I was able to read them, I would not have bought these for myself. (I bought them because I’m going to try to start an extensive reading group and because I wanted to review them for my blog, and I bought as many as I did because I got them used.)

Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 0 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 0)
Volume 1: 90 pages, 535 words (est.)
Volume 2: 89 pages, 630 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 0, 入門 (Introduction): These require a vocabulary of 350 words and knowledge of the most basic structures such as the present and past tenses and asking questions. They are at most 400 characters long; around 100 words by my system. They’re designed for true beginners.

The first volume has six stories, each of which are fifteen pages long, for a total of around 535 words by my system, or an average of 90 words each. The second volume also has six volumes, which are all fifteen pages long except for one which is fourteen pages, and has a total of 630 words, or an average of 105 words in each story. So, again, assuming you buy one volume for $37, each story is a little over $6. (That’s assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more.) All of the volumes come with a CD, so you can listen along to all of the stories.

As books designed for non-native speakers, these graded readers automatically fall outside of the classification system I use for authentic material, but in spirit these Level 0 stories are closest to level 1 books, which are the most basic books available. However, for an adult learner, they’re much better than authentic basic books because they’re designed to be useful. That is, I find that well-written level 2 books can be pretty fun, with good fairytales and illustrations and so on, but level 1 books are usually so babyish that they’re a trial even for someone like me, and I’ve only read a couple that felt like they could be worth the time of an adult student. Furthermore, they’re not particularly any better for a beginning student because even though they look easy, they tie together a lot of Japanese language knowledge that Japanese kids have been exposed to from birth, but people just starting to learn the language probably don’t know yet. For example, they draw on a specialized vocabulary: lots of childish words, sound words and words that are basic, but not at all the kinds of words that beginning adult students learn. They also use grammatical structures well above what a beginning learner probably knows, dropped particles and overly conversational styles, and less formal patterns for structures a learner might already know in another guise. For example, a beginning learner might know how to ask for things with お願いします and ください, but not ちょうだい, which is the one you’re more likely to see in a kid’s book. A beginner could still perhaps puzzle out the meanings, but for tadoku, the ideal is to be able to read fluently and understand most if not all of what you’re reading quickly, without translating back into your native language. Also, there’s no kanji (which, admittedly, is a problem with authentic material that continues until you’re at about a 3rd or 4th grade reading level), even words that are usually written in katakana are often written in hiragana (which is just plain annoying) and of course the content of a book written for a 2-year old is not precisely the kind of stuff most adults would pick up for fun.

On the other hand, these most basic graded readers use a tiny amount of words and just a few grammar structures, so theoretically it wouldn’t be too long before a complete beginner was able to read these. Most importantly, their content is much more bearable for adult readers: some of the stories feel quite sophisticated despite the controlled vocabulary, and you could re-read them a couple of times without getting bored. I thought they would feel like extensions of a textbook but they didn’t feel dry to me, even as short as they are, and they conveyed some useful cultural information in a fun, accessible way. Also, they use kanji right off the bat, even ones like 靴 (shoe). That’s technically a JLPT 2 kanji, but it’s one you see in real life and there’s no downside to connecting it to くつ right from the beginning. (I don’t think there’s a need for a katakana gloss even at this level, though. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t most Japanese learners learn katakana right from the start?)

These readers capture the good parts of level 1 books, which would be the difficulty level, use of repetition to help the reader understand or retain information and ample pictures, but they do it in a way that works for adult readers. In my experience so far, there really is no equivalent authentic material out there, so graded readers at this level would be best for true beginners interested in adding tadoku to their studies.

You can see and hear one page from seven different stories at this level online, so you can tell before ordering if they’d be at an appropriate level for you. There is also a full sample of a Level 1 story available on the Japanese Graded Readers Research Group’s website: 船 (The Boat). So if you try it and it seems too overwhelming or difficult, then go with level 0. There are two volumes of level 0 graded readers: Level 0, Volume 1 and Level 0, Volume 2. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?