Brain Pickings

The Three Astronauts: A Vintage Semiotic Children’s Book about Tolerance by Umberto Eco


An American, a Russian, and a Chinese walk into a semiotic space rocket.

In 1966, shortly after the release of The Bomb and the General, beloved Italian novelist, list-lover, and philosopher Umberto Eco published The Three Astronauts (public library) — the second installment in the same unusual and wonderful children’s book trilogy offering a conceptual introduction to semiotics — the study of signs and symbols. With its recurring symbols and beautiful, abstract illustrations by Italian artist Eugenio Carmi, the story invites the child to draw connections between text and image.

It tells the inspired and irreverent story of space exploration and world peace as a Martian shows concern for a frightened bird and teaches three astronauts — an American, a Russian, and a Chinese — a lesson in tolerance despite difference.

One fine morning three rockets took off from three different places on Earth.

In the first there was an American, happily whistling a bit of jazz.
In the second there was a Russian, singing ‘The Song of the Volga Boatman.’
In the third there was a Chinese, singing a beautiful song — though the other two thought he was all out of tune.”

Like The Bomb and the General, The Three Astronauts is a fine addition to these littleknown but fantastic children’s books by famous authors of adult literature.

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