I thought it might be fun / helpful / interesting to write a little comparison of all the books the Beginners’ Club has read so far now that we’ve read quite a few, I thought it might help people to choose which of our past picks to try.
These are all just my personal opinions!
I did not read Yotsuba&! with the club, and I have still only read the first chapter or two of Kiki’s Delivery Service (again on my own). I’ve taken part in every pick since then, with varying levels of enthusiasm
The quintessential “first manga”.
It features a kid using everyday language to navigate everyday situations, so the language is useful to learners, and it’s pretty comical. Personally I found that the casual and corrupted speech “kid speech” simply made life harder than it needed to be, and subsequently found that manga with more dense text but very standard language were preferable to me as a beginner. Others disagree though!
There’s a continuing book club on the forums for this series, so if you’re looking for something you can continue to read with ready assistance from people here, this is a good option.
Book: Kiki's Delivery Service
As mentioned, I’ve only read the first chapter or two, but I would not recommend this as a first book to tackle. It has quite long sentences with rather flowery language, plus it’s just quite a long book (split up into only 11 chapters) to be your first ever attempt.
I’m reading it this June though, now that I’ve got more experience under my belt - I’ll update this entry once I’ve finished it
this is the manga which convinced me standard language is important to a beginner. The text is more dense than something like Yotsuba&! but it’s a very nice read. It has an unfortunately rough start with a dump of exposition on terraforming, but the language is otherwise reasonable. It’s also just gorgeous and relaxing as a story.
The Masterpiece edition also gives it an edge over most other manga simply through presenting the pages nice and large and clear - it sounds like a minor point, but it makes a big difference to readability! Many manga are so small that the furigana are difficult for a beginner to read.
A spin-off book club read the entire 7-volume series, so this is another great option if you’re looking to invest in one series and be able to ask questions all the way through.
Manga: Non Non Biyori
Comical, but involves lot of difficult dialect. You shouldn’t try this as your first manga ever, but if you’re looking to practice casual and/or dialectal speech, this is a great choice.
You get used to the style within a few chapters - if you follow the threads you’ll notice several people (myself included) struggling with this one after Aria, but then managing to power through to the later chapters.
I honestly found this a bit of a slog, but that may have been simple exhaustion after powering through Non Non Biyori and then also not having much time to read.
It’s very ‘arty’ so I often found the panel reading order confusing, and it has quite a lot of supernatural vocabulary. The chapters are also exceedingly long (50 pages each) so it’s hard to pace yourself and maintain a sense of achievement.
One point to bear in mind is that the discussion threads weren’t particularly active in comparison to other picks, so you may find that fewer of your questions have already been answered. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it if you liked the anime, but again I wouldn’t read this first.
Book: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
I’m not sure I’d pick this as my first book again, but it’s still one of the easiest books we’ve tackled. It’s very short as books go and is broken up into many chapters, so you can pace yourself and it feels very manageable. The language used is repetitive, so you get used to the writing style and learn some key vocabulary pretty quickly.
I and many others managed to finish it as our first ever book, and doing so gave me a lot more confidence in my reading ability.
I think the general consensus was that it was a bit underwhelming as a story, but a very good learning experience.
Manga: Girls' Last Tour
A decent option for a first attempt to read without furigana. The text itself is usually pretty light, so although there aren’t furigana it’s not too overwhelming - and with the vocab sheet you’ll be able to see what the words are easily anyway. The vocabulary is pretty variable, as they encounter different post-apocalyptic situations.
I struggled near the beginning to know which of the two characters was talking, and their own lack of knowledge of the ‘past’ (our present day / future) can translate to actual confusion for a non-native reader, but it’s a very atmospheric and enjoyable manga and genuinely text-light.
An ongoing book club completed the whole 6-volume series, so it’s another good option if you want to invest in one series. The threads weren’t particularly lively after volume one, but it still means there are people available to answer any questions you do have, and the vocab sheet is populated all the way through.
Now this would be a good first book.
Each of the six chapters of this book is effectively an independent story linked by the theme of a magical sweet shop. It uses fairly simple and repetitive language, so it’s great for learners, but the stories are genuinely fun. It’s a nice stepping stone to something more like a novel, while still being prose (vs manga dialogue) and entertaining to an adult.
Each chapter being an independent story means that it maintains interest well, and you could even tackle just one story at a time rather than feeling like you have to get through the whole book in one go.
One drawback is that it doesn’t use kanji much (and really loves onomatopoeia), but this is hard to avoid in children’s books and is actually quite good practice for parsing hiragana. You shouldn’t find it too much of a problem with the vocab sheet to help.
Manga: One Week Friends
I did not finish this, so I don’t want to comment too much, but… this is dense. It uses 4-koma format and just has so. much. text. It was really a struggle to keep up with, even with a decent amount of experience with the club under my belt.
From what I read, the speech is fairly normal, but one or two of the characters use quite casual slang-laden language with each other. It’s a ‘normal’ school setting, and they’re talking about very everyday things, so there’s shouldn’t be too much weird vocabulary.
Manga: Flying Witch
This was actually the first manga I ever read, entirely on my own, which really tells you all you need to know - this is a great manga for beginners, though I won’t pretend I understood everything perfectly first time through!
The protagonist is very polite, so she speaks clearly, and apart from some magic-specific words which come up often enough to be easy to remember (and a couple of notable expositional dumps), the setting is actually fairly everyday. One character speaks a bit more casually, but that’s good practice
I’d put this on par with or above Aria for a beginner: it has much less dense text and shorter chapters, but you don’t get the benefits of reading a really nice, big, beautiful collector’s edition.
There is similarly an ongoing book club continuing to read the series, currently waiting on publication of volume 10. The vocab spreadsheet is well populated at least through volume 5.
Book: Mysterious Town Beyond the Mist
I think this is probably one of the harder books we’ve read, although I’ll have to compare with Kiki once I’ve read that.
Frustratingly, the first chapter features a small cast of characters (besides the protagonist) who all speak with a dialect, making it incredibly annoying for a beginner to read, although it is quite consistent. After this point our protagonist moves elsewhere, where they don’t speak with this dialect and the reading is much easier - although several of the characters have linguistic quirks.
The end became more difficult again for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. It was a solid learning experience and a decent children’s book, but definitely not a good first book.
Manga: Laid-Back Camp
I love this manga so much it is not one to choose as your first, although it’s not hard per se.
It doesn’t use furigana, and it has a fair amount of text. There are some pretty dense sections where you learn about camping equipment and terminology! And one character has a light dialect. If you have more experience reading then it’s the kind of dialect you can mostly brush off, and there’s a quick guide to her specific quirks in the vocab spreadsheet.
That said, it has plenty of quieter moments, so it’s not dense in the way a 4-koma like One Week Friends is. The vocab spreadsheet is very well populated, so the lack of furigana shouldn’t cause too many issues. And the dialect is barely noticeable until a few chapters in. Other than the camping terminology it’s a very everyday setting so the vocabulary is pretty normal.
Plus it’s funny, chill and beautiful. There’s an ongoing club currently on volume 7.
In general, I would advise utilising Graded Readers to a medium level (don’t bother going through all the levels) before tackling some manga which use nice standard, everyday language, and then moving on to books.
There’s an argument to be made for reading easy children’s books (like the わんにゃん探偵団 books) before / instead of manga. They are notorious for not using many kanji at all, which makes it a lot harder for beginners to parse. However, they do use genuinely simple language, and prose can be easier to understand than dialogue. I’m only comparing picks from the Beginner Book Club here, but I think it’s important to mention as an alternative you might want to consider.
If you’re specifically looking at the Beginner Book Club picks, I personally think these are the easiest manga (from easiest to hardest):
- Flying Witch
- Girls’ Last Tour
But I’d look at sample pages of these - with the vocab sheets to hand - to make your own decision as to order, as they have different pros and cons. Also, bear in mind that lots of people swear by Yotsuba&! as a first manga.
Non Non Biyori (issue = dialect) and Laid-Back Camp (issue = furigana) are then solid options once you have a couple of other volumes under your belt.
And I’d tackle the books in this order:
- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
- Mysterious Town Beyond the Mist
Written by Naphthalene
Sadly, I only joined from the second book, so I won’t be able comment on No. 6. It is, however, available at my local library, so I may read it in the near future. I’ll (try to remember to) update this post if I do. I did both of those things.
The first book read by the club! Vintage! The book club thread feels much more like it would belong to the beginner club (focus on grammar question and sentence analysis) than to the current intermediate book club. I feel that it helps to balance out the overall difficulty of the book. While the sentences are fairly clearly written, we are dealing with an SF light novel with a focus on biology. Expect to learn a lot of nice words like 凝固阻止剤 (anticoagulant), 遺伝子 (gene) or サナギ (pupa).
Still, the book itself is very short (200 pages) and, while it is part of a longer series (9 books), stops at a nice breaking point. I feel like it’s a great book to start practicing for harder books while being short enough to not burn you out.
秋の牢獄 (Autumn Prison)
This book contains three independent short stories. Fair warning: they are pretty dark and can get violent at time. The second and third stories definitely made me feel uneasy.
In terms of difficulty, I felt it varied greatly from one story to the next. Without getting into spoilery territory, each story involved a supernatural element. If I had to pick, I think the third story was the hardest to read and the second the easiest. I felt that the sentence structure was overall clear and easy to grasp for a learner. On the vocabulary side, the author pulled no puches, but didn’t go overboard either.
Overall, I felt that this book fits pretty nicely into the “intermediate” category.
赤い悪夢 (5分後に意外な結末) (An Unexpected Conclusion in 5 Minutes: Red Nightmares)
Short version: No, do not read this book.
Long version: So, this is a collection of very short supernatural stories from the West that were translated into Japanese. While the translators obviously did their best, something still felt not right. The concept also means that the vocabulary, writing style and content will vary wildly every few pages.
Another book from the same series was recommended by Leebo in one of his videos, and the way he went about it was to just skip stories that were too boring or too hard. Using that technique, it could be fine to read this book at an intermediate level, but the book itself isn’t cheap, and skipping part of it makes it even less attractive as far as I am concerned. Plus, one of the reasons I started learning Japanese was to be able to read untranslated material; it feels weird to read stuff I could just read in English anyway. There are tons of collections of short Japanese stories available (this is one I can recommend, if you want supernatural stuff), so I’d avoid Red Nightmares, if I were you.
はたらく魔王さま！ (The Devil is a Part-Timer!)
This book was my first light novel! Stylistically, it was quite surprising, as it felt like I was reading a description of what was happening in an anime (like a scenario? I don’t know). Also, characters would voice grunts and the like, rather than just being described as, say, grunting.
In terms of difficulty, it used a few puns that may trip up someone who isn’t familiar with Japanese fast food chains. It also has a lot of fantasy vocabulary, despite being mostly set up in modern Japan. Otherwise, I felt grammar and sentence structure weren’t too hard, but less neatly written than Autumn Prison. I’d say it’s intermediate as well, but it might be harder for those who aren’t familiar with J-RPG lingo.
キノの旅 (Kino’s Journey)
Also a light novel. An interesting characteristic of Kino’s Journey is that every chapter is an independent story about Kino walking the Earth.
In terms of writing style, this book felt a bit more “literary” than はたらく魔王様, but it remains a light novel. Sentence difficulty wasn’t too hard, but there were quite a lot of gun descriptions and related vocabulary.
コンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman)
This book focuses on the everyday life of a 恵子, a middle-aged woman who’s been working at a konbini her whole adult life. It’s hard to say any more without spoiling the plot.
The story is emotionally charged and at the same time situations and vocabulary remain simple. I’d add that the writing is excellent (the author won a prestigious 芥川龍之介賞 for that book) and the story is quite short. Definitely a great book to transition into the “intermediate” level.
涼宮ハルヒの憂鬱 (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya)
Yet another light novel, although this one is, as far as I know, particularly famous. The eponymous character does show up often in pop-culture at the very list.
It’s difficult for me to recommend this book. On the one hand, the plot, once it starts , is quite engaging. On the other hand, we have sexual assault used as comic relief. No matter how much the author meant it as a “joke”, I feel some people can get triggered by that (I definitely wasn’t happy about it).
That aside, the writing style is interesting, but difficult. The main character has long-winded, stream-of-thought internal monologues that can be challenging to parse without enough experience with Japanese texts. Additionally, people who read until the end were all advanced learner, meaning that past the first third of the book, there was no grammar or vocabulary questions, just comments on the story.
Overall, I’d say this book can be good for people who want a more challenging read while still having some support on grammar and vocab (at least for the first part of the story), with the caveat that some elements of the story can be considered untasteful, to say the least.
A nice work of literature, which might be a better match for people who do not like light novels.
The book itself deals with romance and loss, and I thought it was pretty interesting but that might not be everyone’s thing.
The difficulty varies a lot during the book. Some parts will be crystal clear, then suddenly an internal monologue will use a fairly convoluted metaphor or a random dream sequence will destroy your ability to rely on context for comprehension. For those reasons, while the book itself isn’t that hard overall, I would still recommend it to people who are confident in their reading skills.
(Well, of course the threads will show you when we were scratching our heads as well, so it might be fine? )
An other light novel set in a highschool environment. This one follows a literature club (a book club inside a book club! Going meta) as they solve mysteries going on around the school (?!?). It makes sense in context. The thing, though, is that those mysteries are “realistic”, i.e., pretty mundane. The good point is that it means easy vocabulary and situations all around! The bad point is that it can get boring at times, especially at the book club pace. However, if you are reading this, it means you can go as fast as you want!
In terms of difficulty, some characters tend to be quite verbose. It’s not as bad as キョン from ハルヒ, but it can be a bit challenging to parse at the intermediate level.
Written by the same author as 秋の牢獄, a lot of the comments on the other book apply here as well.
The book contain two stories, the titular 夜市 and 風の古道. Like 秋の牢獄, the sentence structure was clear and the vocabulary should not be too challenging at the intermediate level. For better or for worse, the stories were less dark and shocking than in 秋の牢獄. I guess that depends on individual tastes.
Being “more of the same”, this book could be read in place of 秋の牢獄 in the progression, or, if you like the style, as added practice.
Side note: there was some strange bug with the ebook version from Bookwalker/Booklive that added randomly the kanji 炷 in the middle of a sentence near the end (just before the actual use of that kanji). That certainly threw me off for a loop The printed version did not have that problem, and the kindle version used a different kanji altogether
In terms of progression from the Beginner Book Club, I’d say to go:
- コンビニ人間 or Red Nightmares (with the skipping “trick”)
- Kino (or はたらく魔王さま, but the threads from Kino are way more informative in terms of grammar notes and have vocab sheets, so easier to use as transition)
- 秋の牢獄 and/or 夜市
- No 6 or キッチン (based on preference)
Profit!Advanced book club!