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.

Last month, we explored The Bomb and the General, a little-known 1966 children’s book by celebrated novelist, list-lover, and philosopher Umberto Eco, which offered a conceptual introduction to semiotics — the study of signs and symbols. The book was part of a trilogy, the second installment of which, titled The Three Astronauts (I tre cosmonauti), came out later that year and featured the same beautiful, abstract illustrations of Italian artist Eugenio Carmi, full of recurring symbols teaching 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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