Learning by Reading: Five Contemporary Authors Who Will Help You Master German

A young woman reading a red book

Learning by Reading: Five Contemporary Authors Who Will Help You Master German

These five German authors have written books that can help you get closer to fluency—while having fun.
by Nicolette Stewart

Reading a book whose story can propel you through tough grammar and vocabulary is a powerful language-learning tool.  Goethe and Thomas Mann may be lauded as some of Germany’s best literary authors, but they can be difficult for those still learning the language.   Young Germany has five recommendations for language-learners looking for a good read.


The language-learning process can be frustrating.  You want to speak, listen, read, and understand, but you lack vocabulary and grammatical skills.  Reading children’s books can make the process more fun by building up your vocabulary and comprehension skills while opening a window on the culture.  Just remember: every German native speaker started with children’s books, and so can you.

If you had grown up in Germany in the last forty to fifty years, you would have read Janosch.  Born in Poland, raised in Germany, and currently living in Spain, Janosch has published over 150 books, many he both wrote and illustrated.  His most well-known character is the Tigerente, a wooden duck with tiger stripes that accompanies der kleine Tiger on his adventures.  Start with Oh, wie schön ist Panama; Komm, wir finden einen Schatz; and Post für den Tiger.  If you want the culture without having to master the German language, Janosch’s books have been translated into 30 languages.

A sample from Oh, wie schön ist Panama:

“Es waren einmal ein kleiner Bär und ein kleiner Tiger, die lebten unten am Fluss. Dort, wo der Rauch aufsteigt, neben dem großen Baum.  Und sie hatten auch ein Boot.”

Cornelia Funke

Funke writes books for young adults—the logical next step for German learners who have advanced past Janosch, but are getting tired of the all-too-often-dry readings in their textbooks.  Remember, children learn languages quickly because their lives support the process on every level.  Reading books meant for young adults can help you tap into that phenomenon.

Funke is most well-known for her Inkheart trilogy, the first of which was made into a movie in 2008.  Her writing is very straightforward, and a mid-level German speaker should have few problems reading her work.  Start with Tintenherz, which combines a celebration of reading with truly dastardly villains and adventure.  Drachenreiter and Herr der Diebe also come highly recommended.

Sample from Tintenherz:

“Es fiel Regen in jener Nacht, ein feiner, wispernder Regen. Noch viele Jahre später musste Meggie bloß die Augen schließen und schon hörte sie ihn, wie winzige Finger, die gegen die Scheibe klopften.  Irgendwo in der Dunkelheit bellte ein hund, und Meggie konnte nicht schlafen, so oft sie sich auch von einer Seite auf die andere drehte.”

Walter Moers

So you’ve put children’s books behind you and are ready to read adult literature, but you still want it to be fun.  After all, you still need to stop for a dictionary or reread a complicated sentence once in a while.  Meet Walter Moers, one of Germany’s most successful creators.  Though his work is generally classified as fantasy, his are not stories for children, but tightly written, sometimes tragic, always epic adventure stories for adults.  His (loose) take on the Hansel and Gretel story, Ensel und Krete is a fun place to start (as well as being shorter than his other work), though all of his novels—with the exception of Das Labyrinth der Träumenden Bücher—are wonderful, as well as being peppered with his black-and-white illustrations.  Moers has also authored numerous comics, inlcuding Das kleine Arschloch series.

Sample from Die Stadt der träumenden Bücher:

“Hier fängt die Geschicht an.  Sie erzählt, wie ich in den Besitz des Blutigen Buches kam und das Orm erwarb. Es ist keine Geschichte für Leute mit dünner Haut und schwachen Nerven—welchen ich auch gleich empfehlen möchte, dieses Buch wieder zurück auf den Stapel zu legen und sich in die Kinderbuch-Abteilung zu verkrümeln.  Husch, husch, verschwindet, ihr Kamillenteetrinker und Heulsusen, ihr Waschlappen und Schmiegehäschen, hier handelt es sich um eine Geschichte über einen Ort, an dem das Lesen noch ein echtes Abenteuer ist!”

Rocko Schamoni

With a fast-paced, quippy style, Rocko Schamoni’s books make for quick and easy (well, easier, depending on your current German skill level) reading.  Though Schamoni’s career has largely centered around music, he authored the autobiographical books Risiko des Ruhms, Dorfpunks, and Sternstunden der Bedeutungslosigkeit in the last decade.  His writing not only proves that it is actually possible to write short, straight-forward sentences in German, but takes the reader along to a few chapters in the life a teenager in small-town northern Germany in the 70s and 80s.  Dorfpunks was his most popular; start there.

Sample from Dorfpunks:

“1976 in Norddeutschland, genauer gesagt: Schmalenstadt an der Ostsee.  Fünftausend Einwohner, CDU-regiert, nächste größere stadt: Kiel. Viel Wald, Bäche, Seen, Hügel, eine Endmoränenlandschaft, geformt in der Eiszeit. Man nennt es die Holsteinische Schweiz, idyllisch, relativ unberührte Natur, das meiste Land in Adelshand. Und totaler Totentanz.”

Frank Schätzing

Frank Schätzing started his career in advertising in the city where he was born: Cologne.  His career as a writer began in 1990, with his first large success following with the 1995 publication of Tod und Teufel.  He has written mysteries, political thrillers, historical novels, and, most-famously, the science fiction thriller Der Schwarm (The Schwarm) which has been translated into 27 languages.

Until the success of the Der Schwarm, Schätzing’s work was more popular locally than globally.  Since its publication, the Goldmann Verlag has bought the rights to his previous works and republished them under their moniker.  His latest book came out in 2009 and is titled Limit.  Start with one of Schätzing’s Cologne mysteries to get a bit of local color with your reading.  If you are up for a challenge, tackle Der Schwarm—but don’t let the technical vocabulary bog you down.

Sample from Der Schwarm:

“An der chilenischen Küste wurde vergangene Woche ein riesiger, unidentifizierter Kadavar angeschwemmt, der sich an der Luft rasch zersetzte.  Nach Angaben der chilenischen Küstenwache handelt es sich bei der formlosen Masse nur um einen kleinen Teil einer größeren Masse, die zuvor im Wasser treibend beobachtet wurde.  Die chilenischen Experten fanden keinerlei Knochen, die ein Wirbeltier selbst in einen derartigen Zustand noch hätte.  Die Masse sei zu groß für Walhaut und würde auch nicht danach riechen.  Die bisherigem Erkenntnisse weisen erstaunliche Parallelel zu den sogenannten Globsters auf.”

Has reading helped you to improve your German skills?  Come join the conversation over on the Young Germany facebook page.

by Nicolette Stewart