The Miracle Seed – written and illustrated by Martin Lemelman
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2023
Given the popularity of books for young readers about under-recognized women scientists, finding one with a distinctive premise is always welcome. Martin Lemelman’s graphic work of non-fiction celebrates two scientists working in Israel to revive an extinct date palm. He integrates several themes, including Jewish history, the science of botany, and the under-representation of women in the sciences. The collaborative work of Dr. Elaine Solowey and Dr. Sarah Sallon succeeded in pollinating ancient plant material and producing a date that had not exited for a thousand years. Lemelman carefully contextualizes their “miraculous” project as part of the Jewish people’s roots, and also paints a vivid picture of the women’s friendship, predicated on mutual respect and shared goals.
Science is not a miracle and Lemelman does not attribute the project’s success to the supernatural. Instead, he establishes how the improbability of locating the date palm seed, preserving it, and finding two brilliant and dedicated women to engineer its rebirth evokes a sense of awe sometimes reserved for miracles. Divided into sections, the book unfurls its story step-by-step, at first inviting readers to travel back to the time of the First Jewish War against Rome (66-73 C.E.), when the Emperor Titus destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and left devastation in the aftermath. Lemelman draws each scene cinematically, including ones at Masada, where artifacts of the rebellion lie in ruins. In 1963, archeologist Yigael Yadin and his team locate these items; his discovery appears in striking images and poetic text: “They unearthed broken baskets and bronze arrows…They unearthed beautiful mosaics and ragged clothing.” They also found a clay jar containing date palm seeds.
The story moves forward smoothly, emphasizing both innovation and continuity with the past. As Solowey and Sallon employ the scientific method to achieve their goal, they refer, casually and affectionately, to Jewish religion and culture. A seed is planted on the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, commemorating the New Year of the Trees, and soon sprouts. They assign biblical names to the male and female plants produced by their work, and they recite the Shehechiyanu prayer marking a new experience. There is no contradiction between religion and science, because they operate in different spheres. The two scientists respond to the results of their experiments from the personal identities, which are proudly Jewish.
In addition to photographs and an informative timeline, Lemelman includes an “Author’s Note” which is truly inventive, chronicling the story of how he came to write this book. Honest, humorous, and unpretentious, it constitutes a brief book within the larger one, describing his formation as an artist and writer, conversations with his wife about the challenges of his work, and his excitement at find historical sources and artistic inspiration. The section may be an appendix, but, in retrospect, it enhances the experience of reading by conveying excitement in the full process of writing a book. Children, and adults sharing the book with them, may find that a bit miraculous, too.