Easy to Read Chinese Novels: Mandarin Companion

Basic information about these graded readers:

Author:  Jared Turner and John Pasden
Country of original publication: China
Language: Simplified Chinese or Traditional Chinese
Pages per book: ~60 (Breakthrough Series) or ~90 (Level 1)
Lines per page: 2 -12
Books in the series: 17 (across 3 levels)
Pinyin: Yes, in footnote for specific word
Audio available: 
Yes, for some books
Available in Singapore NLB libraries: No
Total length of the book: 5000 (Breakthrough Series) or 10000 characters (Level 1 & 2)
Character knowledge required by child to read it independently: <500

If you follow my blog, you know that I’m a little obsessed with graded readers.  We have a lot, and we love them all for different purposes.   A graded reader is a book that’s written using a specific limited amount of words (or in the case of Mandarin, a certain amount of unique characters) and gets progressively harder, to suit readers at different levels. 

Mandarin Companion books are a really different kind of graded reader / bridging book set.  For Levels 1 & 2, they take classics from English literature, and cleverly translate them into books with minimal characters, that can be read by a Mandarin beginner.  This concept makes it quite appealing for an older learner, who can become a bit bored by the ‘Tom and Jane’ style beginning books.

I feel this approach to designing a graded reader is quite a western concept to learning Chinese – in that there are so may simplified classical stories for English learners, and we’ve yet to find many of these in Chinese (apart from Monkey King).  That’s why Mandarin Companion are great.   This series is designed to combine simplicity of characters with an intersting storyline and a Chinese cultural twist. 

How can a story like Jane Austin’s Emma or Sherlock Holmes, or the Secret Garden be condensed down into just 300 or less characters without losing the intrigue?  Well, yes, you’ll see it’s been done very well.

Are these graded readers or bridging books?

Whilst the publisher calls the Mandarin Companion Readers ‘Graded Readers’, to me they’re actually straddling into the realm of ‘Bridging Books’ because they’re longer than most Chinese readers and not designed to be as kiddy, and are well developed stories based on a limited set of characters, rather than short picture book stories which systematically introduce new characters, with many visual prompts.  In any case, whatever you call them, let’s agree they’re easy-to-read Chinese chapter books.  Novel and great!

For context, these books are harder (and much more interesting) than early stage readers like Sage 500 or the first couple of levels of Odonata.  They’re substantially easier than the final sets in Odonata and the Green Le Le Chinese books. 

There are three levels: breakthrough level (150 characters), level 1 (300 characters), and level 2 (450 characters), with different stories for each.   These certainly aren’t books I’d use with a pre-primary age student (because of the lack of pictures, and pure length) but I think for an intermediate primary age or older Mandarin learner, these are a godsend.

Who is behind Mandarin Companion?

The books are the brainchild of Jared Turner and John Pasden (from Sinosplice …. which is the longest running blog on the internet focussed on learning Mandarin Chinese….. RESPECT!), who between them have lived several decades in China, and have a good understanding of what it’s like to learn Chinese and become fluent in the language, when coming from a non-native background.    

In contrast to our other Chinese levelled reading sets (eg Le Le from Taiwan, Sage from Hong Kong, Odonata from Malaysia, Disney I Can Read from Mainland China) which originate from Chinese-speaking countries where children learning to read and write Chinese at a pre-primary age, the Mandarin Companion books are specifically targeted for non-native learners.  Co-author Jared Turner has written a great explanation on the value of extensive reading to learn a second language on the Mandarin Companion website, https://mandarincompanion.com/blog/how-reading-in-chinese-changed-my-life/  which is worthwhile to have a look at, and understand their pedagogy.

Why Mandarin Companion is good?

  • Limited character to range to either 150 (for breakthrough series) or 300 (for Level 1), with length about 5000 or 10,000 words respectively:  Stories are adapted to be super simple yet plot can still captivate the reader.  I also like that whilst they “only” contain say 150 characters, they’re long, and show how different characters can be combined in very different ways to make up different words/ideas, which is not a feature of shorter graded readers.
  • Well designed and annotated:  All new words are number in the text, and defined at the bottom of the page.   This mean there’s no distraction from the main text, but it’s easy to look up the new characters.    Proper nouns are underlined to better help with reading comprehension.  There’s a nice introduction at the start (in English) to set the scene, and a glossary of words at the back, including examples of how to use them. (That’s for the hardcopy, I’ve heard the e-Book is a little different).
  • Great plot development and well written:  Uses familiar stories (for Level 1 books), but gives them a Chinese twist along with simplifying the story.
  • Probably the best type of graded reader for an older student:  Research shows that the best way to truly become bilingual and biliterate in a language is to do extensive reading.  Reading a book which is too difficult can be exhausting, and reading a book which isn’t interesting also becomes a chore.  These books are just right level to enable a child (or an intermediate learner with a limited vocabulary range) the opportunity to do extensive reading, without become bored or exhausted.  Hacking Chinese also has a great post on the value of extensive reading.
  • Comes in a series, but can be bought individually: This is another bonus point, because it’s possible just to buy the titles which sound interesting for the child, and also avoids investing in a potentially white elephant if it doesn’t work out. 
  • Great for an older learner who has already read the classics in English: from a reading perspective, experts say it’s helpful to read a translated version of a books that you’ve already read before in your native language.  From my child’s perspective, with picture books, I’ve seen they find this approach boring.  Usually if they’ve read a book in English (like Hungry Caterpillar or The Giving Tree), they’re unlikely to show any interest in the Chinese version.  However, that’s where Mandarin Companion is different.  For my daughter who loves the Secret Garden in English, she was intrigued to read how it was contextualised to be set in China, and she felt great satisfaction reading it in a new cultural context.
  • Great cultural immersion:  Whilst these are original western classic fiction, the characters are given Chinese names, locations are adapted to places in China, and essentially if you didn’t know better, you’d have no idea these were originally English books.
Sage 500 (getting up to ~500 characters) has similar word range to My Teacher is a Martian (150 characters only), but with a more interesting storyline.

Considerations

  • Designed for older readers:  These books are more like novels than picture books (there are just enough pictures to keep a primary schooler happy, and the few pictures they have are quite vivid and colourful, to really visualise the setting).  But it’s worth being aware that not all the books have content which is age-appropriate for a younger child (i.e. some teen romances, love affairs, etc, which is pretty obvious from the title).
  • Some may say that these translations are not true to the original English text.  That’s fair.  For me, it’s not an issue, as my children as less likely to draw direct comparison between the books or highlight which parts of the plot have been removed in making the simplifications.  
  • Some books, but not all, come with audio through Audible (which we haven’t tried, so no further ability to comment on this).  Why haven’t we needed the audio?  Well our Dictionary Pen fills in the rest of the gaps when needed.

Titles Available (& a taste of how they’re been given an Asian twist)

Breakthrough level (150 unique characters):

The Breakthrough Level stories are the only books which are not adaptations of western classics.  The are originals works by John Pasden and Jared Turner, cleverly designed with limited word selections yet intriguing plot.

  • My Teacher is a Martian 我的老师是火星人 : This was the first book we read. It’s a sci-fi story about two school students who suspect their teacher is from Mars, and try to prove it.
  • In Search of Hua Ma 花马 :  This is a fantasy story, said to be partly inspired by Alice in Wonderland, Rip Van Winkle and Narnia (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).   As a young boy is walking through the mountains when he discovers, an ancient home with an old lady who asks in inside.  After which, he’s magically transported to a Hainanese island, and need to find his way home. It’s a prelude to the Level 1 Book The Sixty Year Dream.
  • The Misadventures of Zhou Haisheng 周海生:  This book is a prelude to the Level 1 Book Emma.  It’s about a mischievous young boy, Zhou Haisheng and his family’s Chinese noodle restaurant where he likes to help out (but always gets in trouble).    
  • Xiao Ming, Boy Sherlock小明 : Detective genre book, about a young boy and his older brother who solve mysteries.   This is a prelude to Level 1 Book The Case of the Curly Haired Company.
  • Just Friends? 我们是朋友吗: A teen romance! I bought it, but it’s remaining on the shelf.

Level one (300 unique characters):

  • The Secret Garden 秘密花园 – based on its namesake by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  Character names have been localised – with Mary Lennox becoming Li Ye, who is orphaned after an epidemic and sent to live with her odd uncle in a mansion in Nanjing. It’s a very true-to-the-original, yet localised story about discovering the secret garden within the sprawling estate.
  • Emma 安末 – based on Emma by Jane Austen, but brought into 21st Century Shanghai, with the beautiful heroine Emma as a fashion designer, and daughter of a wealthy businessman.

We haven’t read the rest yet but they are:

  • The Monkey’s Paw 猴爪 adapted from namesake book by W.W. Jacobs
  • The Country of the Blind 盲人国 adapted from namesake book by H.G. Wells
  • The Ransom of Red Chief 红猴的价格 based on namesake book by O. Henry
  • The Sixty Year Dream 六十年的梦 based on “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving.
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Curly Haired Company 卷发公司的案子based on The Red Headed League by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Prince and the Pauper 王子和穷孩子 based on the famous Mark Twain novel

Level two (450 unique characters):

  • Journey to the Center of the Earth 地心游记 adapted from Jules Verne.
  • Great Expectations: Part One 美好的前途(上) adapted from Charles Dickens
  • Great Expectations: Part Two 美好的前途(下)adapted from Charles Dickens
  • Jekyll & Hyde 江可和黑德 adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson

They’re all available in Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese, in eBook or physical copy. 

We have 8 of the 17 books (none from Level 2)

The Mandarin Companion website has full descriptions of each book.  Free PDF excerpts are available online, which will give you a sense for the contents and level of the books. 

Layout of the Book

Each book has a similar layout.

First, it introduces the characters at the start.  They’ve all been very localised with mainland Chinese names and settings.

The end has a glossary containing all the words in blue in the main text.

Where to buy?

They’re available to order in Singapore from Amazon Prime, with free delivery.  I haven’t seen them sold through any other shops or online stores locally.

Elsewhere, visit the Mandarin Companion website and see their local selling methods in your geography.

Wondering about other similar books?

In short, we don’t know any which are remotely similar. I’ve reviewed other books which my primary school age children enjoy here, and also listed out bridging books by character complexity in another post, but none of them are as simple to start with as these Mandarin Companion readers.

I’ve attempted to sort this book list from easiest to hardest. The characters required is just my best guess – no I haven’t gone in detail and compared all the book text with characters lists. In many cases, I find it’s not just the complexity of characters, but also the length of the text also, and how appealing the graphics are.

Below is a graphic, where I’ve sorted some of the series review on my blog by length and complexity. You’ll see Mandarin Companion sits in a league of its own.

Comparison of Chinese bridging books


I’ve love to hear from you about your thoughts and recommendations. Reading widely is a key to attaining fluency in Chinese, and it’s something I’m passionate about. I love connecting with other book-loving comrades, and if you’re in Singapore, perhaps you might even like to join the Ni Hao Singapore Primary School Chinese FB Group created by a few local bloggers just for this purpose, and it includes the ability to buy and sell used books!

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