Legendary Cajun/country singer-songwriter/accordionist Jo-El Sonnier is the subject of two new children’s books--with more to come.
The Little Boy Under the Wagon covers Sonnier’s early years and depicts the struggles he faced growing up as an autistic child in South Louisiana in the 1950s.
There’s a Mouse in My Accordion is the fictional account of Marcel, a little deaf mouse who lives in Sonnier's accordion. But most of the events depicted in the story are based on fact, as there was a real mouse who actually lived in Sonnier’s first accordion.
Published through TheBookpatch, the books were written by Sonnier’s sister-in-law Dr. Shirley Strange-Allen, who spent hours in conversation with Sonnier in order to document his singular story.
“We started with Under the Wagon,” says Strange-Allen. “Being under the wagon in the cotton field is Jo-El’s first memory, and from there we jumped to his first accordion, which belonged to his older brother. He found it under the bed, and it had a hole in the bellows that had been chewed by a mouse who lived inside! Jo-El had to get it out and then plug the hole with chewing gum and that’s where the second book comes from--except we pretend that the mouse didn’t die, but begins to hear through the vibrations of the accordion. When Jo-El becomes a big star he takes Marcel around the world with him, and they meet many important historical figures while witnessing major events of the 20th and 21st centuries.”
Sonnier, says Strange-Allen, is himself kind of a cross between Forrest Gump and Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man.
“Run both movies together and it’s the story of Jo-El Sonnier’s life,” she says, noting his many achievements in music--like writing a song recorded by Johnny Cash--and appearances in movies like Steel Magnolias, not to mention shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy at the International Rice Festival in Crowley, Louisiana.
“He has total recall of everything--but you just have to ask him,” continues Strange-Allen. “If you don’t ask him, he won’t tell you. And it doesn’t matter what you ask, within three sentences he gets back to music. Nothing exists for Jo-El outside of music.”
She says that his “single focus” on music relates to a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome.
“We had six kids with Asperger come to meet him at a book signing last week and they were in awe of all that he’s accomplished,” says Strange-Allen. “But he’s so private, and was against doing The Little Boy Under the Wagon at the beginning: He didn’t want people to know what he struggled through, but since it came out people have been sending amazing stories about reading it to their grandchildren or sharing their own memories of what they suffered in school. It’s all about growing up different from other children, and what you have to go through--but you can get through it and live out your dreams and be successful like the little boy under the wagon.”
Strange-Allen had 25 years of experience teaching gifted students, many also dealing with physical or mental limitations. She began writing children’s books to show that being different need not get in the way of fulfilling their dreams.
“I was on vacation and my sister texted me and said, ‘Someone wants Jo-El to teach about him and music at a university!’” she recalls. “I told her I’d taught for 30 years and anybody can teach if they know what they’re talking about--and Jo-El knows about music!”
Still, Strange-Allen wanted to speak with the professor.
“I told him that Jo-El was an absolute music wizard, but that he had Asperger’s, and while he was high-functioning, something like teaching a class could be a challenge and he would need to ease into it and have guidance.”
The school was Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, in the music department.
“They were doing a series called ‘The Living Legends,’” says Strange-Allen, who spent an evening and early morning--from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.--getting Jo-El to talk about his life--its challenges and accomplishments--in preparation for the class. It was from this conversation that the books were conceptualized.
The author recounts how the son of uneducated cotton field sharecroppers in Rayne, Louisiana (the “Frog Capital of the World”) played accordion at cockfights at four-years-old while his dad sang, then collected coins that the attendees threw at them in appreciation.
“From there he went to playing fais do-dos [Cajun dance parties], and won his first accordion contest in 1959 in Crowley—and still has the little crawfish trophy. He’d play a radio station in Crowley, pick a couple rows of cotton and go to a school where they spoke English—but he only spoke French: On the second day of first grade they put the Cajun kids in the back of the class and the other kids called him ‘Stupid accordion Cajun boy.’”
Yet it was that accordion that led to Sonnier’s recording career, which began when he was 13.
“He recorded a song, ‘Duson Playboys Special’—Duson was the next town over from Rayne, and his band was called the Duson Playboys,” says Strange-Allen. “But he didn’t know he needed a second song [for the single] so he wrote ‘Tee Yeaux Bleu’—‘Your Blue Eyes.’ They didn’t even have a radio at home, but his mom—who recognized that Jo-El was different from other children and did everything she could to nurture his talent—grabbed him by the hand, took him to his bedroom, and showed him the old metal pie pans she’d nailed to the wall and said, ‘These are your gold records. One of these days you’ll have real ones on the wall, but until then you have these!’ She had so much faith in him and his potential, and he still has one of them today.”
Sure enough, Jo-El Sonnier is now a proud member of The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and in 2015, after four nominations, won his first Grammy, in the Best Regional Roots album category, for The Legacy, an all-original set of mostly French Cajun music. But as Strange-Allen notes, he still faces the day-to-day challenges of being different—and wants children to know that it’s okay to be different, that “everyone has a song in their heart.”
Along with Sonnier’s forthcoming university presentation, he has just recorded three songs for a children’s CD relating to the books, and has put up a couple live Christmas videos, “Christmas in the Snow” and “No-El from Jo-El,” both filmed outside his home in Lake Charles during a rare Louisiana snowfall. Both are on YouTube, with “Christmas in the Snow” getting over 1.25 million views on Facebook so far.
"Christmas in the Snow"
Meanwhile, Strange-Allen is working on her next Sonnier-related children’s book, There’s Something in the Swamp.
“All the books deal with children's disabilities,” she says, “and make people see that it’s okay no matter what problems you have.”
And of her collaborations with Sonnier, she concludes: “I taught gifted children with disabilities for years, but never got to see them after middle school. Jo-El’s been my chance to see what they turned into!”
The Little Boy Under the Wagon and There’s a Mouse in My Accordion are available at TheBookPatch website or on Jo-El Sonnier’s Facebook page.