LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Fans know Jo-El Sonnier as a Grammy winner, a Cajun music legend with 30 albums, Top 10 country hits and performances at the Grand Ole Opry. People closer to Sonnier have seen another side, when the musician seems like a 71-year-old child.
Some dismissed the odd behavior as a quirky personality. Others gossiped that Sonnier, as a touring musician, had too much alcohol and drugs, although he never did either.
For the first time, Sonnier unveils the reason for his behavior in a new children’s book, “The Little Boy Under the Wagon.” The book reveals Sonnier has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that can result in repetitive behavior, impaired verbal and nonverbal skills, social struggles and other challenges.
Sonnier said the book has an important message for children and parents.
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“There’s a way of being different and still being normal,” said Sonnier. “My mother always thought I was special.”
“My whole trouble was from my beginning, being taught English in a world that I was born into in French. Everybody around us spoke in French.
“Now we have something to take to new generations that might not understand. They need to know it’s OK to be different.”
The 62-page book recounts Sonnier’s childhood as a French-speaking, cotton-picking sharecropper who became an international music star. As a baby, Sonnier, born in 1946, was put under a wagon while the rest of the family picked cotton in the fields.
Sonnier’s mother, Eunice, surprised him with an accordion he could play to pass the time. He became obsessed with the instrument and was soon entertaining family members. His mother encouraged him to look at the night sky because one day, he would shine just like the stars.
But Sonnier’s first day of school had no star treatment. The teacher and students spoke English, a language he did not understand. Other children ridiculed his ways, calling him “Cajun,” which was then considered an insult.
Sonnier retreated to time alone with his accordion even more. But by the age of 13, he had his first record, a song that he made up during his ride to the recording session.
The song opened the door to a lifetime on stage. He eventually shared the spotlight with Johnny Cash, George Strait and other stars.
The book ends with an epilogue from the author, Shirley Strange-Allen. His sister-in-law is a retired teacher who spent years working with autistic children. She witnessed tell-tale signs of Sonnier’s autism and began collecting stories to put in a book.
Bobbye Sonnier, Jo-El’s wife and the author’s sister, said the musician has turned the disorder into a positive.
“Once he figured it out and had a diagnosis, he saw ‘This is why the way I thought the way I did,'” said Bobby Sonnier. “‘This is why I didn’t fit in. This is why I focused on music 100 percent. This is why I don’t like crowds outside of music.
“He’s sees he’s different, but it’s OK to be different.”
The Sonniers plan to release a children’s CD next year, along with another book, “There’s a Mouse in My Accordion.” They want to take his story to schools, libraries and other places with an informal music and conversation series.
“You want to leave something good behind and let somebody embrace that,” said Jo-El. “When you’re gone, that’s it.
“One day, we won’t be here. While we are here, let’s try to do the good.”