The beautiful astronaut book Umberto Eco wrote to teach children about semiotics and tolerance

Umberto Eco is best known for his novels, like Foucault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose, but he also wrote a handful of children's books. In his marvelous book The Three Astronauts, Eco offered children a lesson on tolerance, while also training their brains in basic semiotics.

Eco's collage-based artwork depended on symbols, rather than the representative images traditionally found in children's literature. The story centers around three astronauts: one American (represented by gum wrappers), one Russian (represented a scrap of a Russian flier), one Chinese (represented by a Chinese character). Even though the trio are all from the same planet, they are conscious of each other's differences:

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."


It takes a Martian, a distinctly different creature, to teach them about tolerance. At the same time, children learn to associate symbols, rather than representative pictures, with the characters described on the page.

Unfortunately, The Three Astronauts is long out of print, and the only copies on Amazon are quite expensive. But you can see more of the pages, including more of the book's text, at Brain Pickings. The site also explores a second Eco children's book, The Bomb and the General.

The Three Astronauts: A Vintage Semiotic Children's Book about Tolerance by Umberto Eco [Brain Pickings]


Share This Story

Get our newsletter