A young girl is disgruntled when she thinks about the old yellow handkerchief that her abuela wears in her hair. The handkerchief was given to abuela by her own grandmother, and serves many functions: cleaning dirt from under abuela’s fingernails, forming a basket to carry eggs from the chicken coop, wiping her sweaty brow, waving to get the girl’s attention. When the girl plays with her friend, she wishes abuela would act and talk like her friend’s grandmother.
The girl is ashamed of abuela and the cultural practices that shape her family’s life. Her negative feelings about the yellow handkerchief intensify, from not liking it to definitely not liking it, to not being able to stand it, to despising it. But when the girl trips and hurts herself, abuela runs to her side and dries her tears with the handkerchief. That night, when abuela puts the girl to bed, she sings lullabies to her and rests the handkerchief on her back, a soothing blanket.
Everything changes when the girl’s younger sister becomes ill and abuela must move away to protect herself from the disease. The girl discovers that abuela has left the yellow handkerchief behind. When the girl misses abuela, the handkerchief offers comfort, and the girl unexpectedly uses it like abuela did when taking up her grandmother’s chores and responsibilities. Sadly, when the girl cries she must wipe her own tears with the handkerchief in abuela’s absence. The day when abuela returns to live with the family, the girl runs to greet her, waving the yellow handkerchief and shouting, “Yo amo el panuelo amarillo!” (“I love the yellow handkerchief!”)
Illustrator Cynthia Alonso’s lively, sensitive pictures capture the conflicting, intense feelings of a young girl trying to come to terms with her cultural background. In the author's notes, Donna Barba Higuera writes, “When I was young, there were things I did not understand or appreciate about my abuela. . . . I know now how beautiful, brilliant, interesting, and strong she was. . . . And I’d give almost anything to see her waving her dirty handkerchief and hear her calling me inside just one more time.” (Harry N. Abrams)