“Grandma’s been staying with us since she got sick,” reads the opening line of The Bird Feeder, which gently ushers readers into a difficult, necessary story. “That means now I can visit with her anytime I want,” reads the next line, letting the reader know that, while this story might be sad, there are also lovely moments ahead—promise.
The narrator loves their grandmother, so the new arrangement is a welcome change. Together, they watch the bird feeder outside her window and create drawings of the birds they see. They especially admire the cardinals, which are Grandma’s favorite. Then Grandma moves to a new home. “Do you remember when I told you about the hospice?” asks the child’s mother, giving readers the opportunity to learn as well. “You told me it’s where Grandma will go when she needs to be more comfortable,” the narrator answers.
The child brings the bird feeder to the hospice so that Grandma can watch the birds through her new window. They continue to watch birds and draw, but they also enjoy bowls of purple Jell-O and visits from a therapy dog, and a pair of cardinals build a nest in the tree near the feeder. The days pass quietly and eventually, Grandma dies. “I’m glad Grandma saw the baby birds,” the narrator says. “I’m sad she won’t see them leave their nest.”
Few books handle death and dying as gracefully as The Bird Feeder. Author Andrew Larsen and illustrator Dorothy Leung don’t shy away from the realities of a hospice facility, including a nurse with gloves and a stethoscope, and a hospital bed with guardrails that nonetheless looks comfortable and homey. “I thought [the hospice] would be scary. But it’s not,” the narrator reveals. “It smells like pancakes.” Particularly poignant is the spread where the narrator and their mother say goodbye to Grandma as she sleeps, her lips turned down and eyes closed. The narrator sees three baby birds in the nest outside and squeezes their grandmother’s hand three times.
Being present with someone who is dying can be one of life’s most remarkable experiences, and The Bird Feeder avoids portraying death as something that happens invisibly or behind closed doors. Larsen and Leung depict a difficult subject with dignity, leaving readers with a reminder that we can continue to remember and honor our loved ones, even after they are no longer with us.