Author and illustrator Rashad Malik Davis followed his dream.
That’s not hyperbole—he literally followed his dream. Or, better put, his dreams. Davis recently published his first children’s book, “Carefree Like Me,” but his dreams started not long after he began working full-time at Merrill Lynch two years ago. In his sleep, he would be walking past a building in New York City when it exploded. The dust blew past him and showed him a number: 1557.
Not being the type to just shrug things off, Davis wanted to know what that dream number meant. So, he turned to where most of us these days turn to find out information: Google.
“I typed in ‘1557 spiritual meaning’ or something like that,” he says. It led him to a blog by Joanne Walmsley, an Australian woman whose site, Sacred Scribes, decodes “angel numbers.” He found the following interpretation:
“… the choices and decisions you have made and the changes you are contemplating and undertaking are very positive and will be of benefit to you in many ways as they will bring enlightenment and opportunities for you to express your true passions and interests.”
As it turned out, Davis was already considering going back to school for a master’s degree in the arts. And, as it also turned out, he kept hearing a word in his dreams: SCAD. When he found out that SCAD is the Savannah College of Art & Design, he said to himself, “this is more than just a coincidence at this point.”
This is why he considers his life choice to become an artist and use his art to heal others more of a calling than a decision. He felt he had a lot to offer the world through art. Things like empathy and compassion and healing that he couldn’t provide in his day job in Merrill’s retirement sector.
Not that he had a problem with the company or even his job, really. Davis says he deeply cared for the people he worked with and that Merrill Lynch treated him wonderfully. It just didn’t fulfill him to sit at a desk.
It did, however, teach him to pay attention to and plan for his future. Davis worked in the retirement sector for about eight months, starting in January 2015, at the ripe old age of 23.
“That taught me very quickly to have my stuff in order,” he says.
Davis was born in Staten Island and moved to Lawrence in 1999. He grew up for the most part with a pen and paper in hand at all times. Ever the one for diversity and knowing more about people, he got his bachelor’s in anthropology and Chinese language and culture from Tufts University in 2013. He also speaks Mandarin.
The year he graduated from Tufts, he illustrated the book cover to Tufts professor Monica Ndounou’s book, “Shaping the Future of African American Film: Color Coded Economics and the Story Behind the Numbers.” He also illustrated Ama Karikari’s “Sunne’s Gift” and, in 2015, illustrated the cover to Tabias Wilson’s “Godless Circumcisions,” a book of poetry and prose.
At Tufts, he found himself surrounded by intellectually driven people from all walks of life and found he naturally attracted like-minded people to himself. That sense of being around creative and energetic people never left him after college.
When he applied to SCAD’s animation school, Davis was somewhat surprised to get in, but he wasn’t about to question a good thing. So he moved to Georgia to study animation, and found out something unexpected: “My gift was not for animating.”
It wasn’t the art part that wasn’t for him, it was the mechanics of animating every frame of a film. Animation is fun to watch but monotonous to make, and Davis knew he was better at creating characters and telling stories than he was at stitching incrementally adjusted still frames together.
Davis set to work on a series of books ostensibly targeted towards children, but that adults would also like, or could at least learn from. His first book, “Carefree Like Me,” introduces Amir and Neena, a pair of best friends modeled after himself and his real-life BFF, Nina Narang. Davis and Narang have been close friends since they were 8 years old, she says, and they still like to go on adventures together.
Their bond translated into the adventures of Amir, “a sensitive, heart-on-your-sleeve type kid” and Neena, his “no-nonsense, rough and tumble best friend” who come by a magic necklace that takes them to new worlds.
What’s different about the kids’ adventures is that the reason for their visits to other worlds is to help the heroes of those worlds connect with their emotional intelligence. In “Carefree Like Me,” the kids help Root the Brave, who has a lot of fear to overcome. Each new adventure will tackle different emotions, like sadness, anger, inability to speak truth, and so on.
“I am always floored by his creativity and passion,” Narang says. “After tossing creative ideas back and forth for years, I was incredibly touched to find out that he was basing the character on me, and was really delighted at how the dynamic between the characters really seemed to mimic the dynamic of our real-life friendship.”
Narang, a writer, says the two have always bounced ideas off each other, but his bringing together “his free-spiritedness” vs. “my more measured approach” is especially strong in “Carefree Like Me.”
The purpose of the books, Davis says, is to teach children, especially boys, the value of being in touch with their emotions.
“People are dominated by emotions, but society doesn’t teach us how to live with those emotions,” Davis says. “Especially boys. There is no emotional vocabulary.”
The ability to feel something and understand it and address it is the definition of emotional intelligence. But for boys in particular, Davis says, there is no real conversation about how they can and should handle their more sensitive emotions. Because, surprise, boys actually do feel sensitive emotions. They’re just discouraged from expressing them.
Indeed, Davis himself, who long ago accepted that he thought differently from other boys and is more in touch with his emotions overall than most males, wondered if he should actually publish “Carefree Like Me” at all.
“At first I thought I shouldn’t do the story,” he says. “Sensitivity is a sensitive topic.”
But Davis has already been rewarded with overwhelmingly positive response.
“I haven’t gotten any negative feedback,” he says. “People are telling me, ‘What you do is so crucial.’”
Adding a layer to the conversation (or lack thereof) surrounding emotional intelligence among boys and adults is race. Davis says he likes to populate his stories with characters of color because they are underrepresented in children’s stories and because boys who grow up in poorer black neighborhoods often have even less of a chance to learn about emotional intelligence than those who grow up in more affluent areas.
Black boys, he says, don’t often get to see positive, professional role models of strong, successful black men, and that takes a toll on them.
“There are not a lot of black, male cartoonists out there,” he says. If he sees himself as any kind of role model, it’s as one who teaches boys (and girls, of course) that it’s important for them to be who they want to be, and that there is freedom in creativity.
“We need to have this dialogue with boys,” he says.
This is especially true now, Davis says. Though he tries to not be political, he says we’re in a moment in time when a more fringe attitude towards non “accepted” types of people is being openly espoused. This, he says, is a time for healing and empathy, not one to give into our more aggressive emotions.
“Carefree Like Me” was also inspired by a couple of America’s uglier moments—the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and photo that compared his killing with that of Emmett Till, a 14-year- old black boy who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955.
The deaths, he says, gave him the storyline for his book series on the spot, because he felt someone needed to start a conversation on healing and compassion. He helped fund his enterprise through KickStarter and signed with hybrid publisher Mascot, which helps him market the book but allows him to retain all rights. The book was released in mid-February.
Pre-launch, “Carefree Like Me” garnered the attentions of Afropunk magazine, which reviewed the then-upcoming book because it struck a chord with the publishers.
“The uplift and affirmation of children of diverse backgrounds is paramount in all times, but especially in times like these,” the magazine wrote. “Between police brutality, gender and sexuality discrimination, and lack of mental health resources for Black and Brown youth, it’s important that when the opportunity presents itself, that every effort is made to support those who want to support the kids.”
One reason to focus on kids for stories is that teaching children plants seeds for their whole lives, Davis says. Another is that he just really loves kids. Friends’ kids call him Uncle Rashad, and their energy and willingness to learn and discover is a major inspiration for him.
“I’m really just a gigantic kid anyway,” he laughs. “I can relate to the limitlessness of their world.”