2018 Speakers and Moderators

James River Writers is pleased to announce the confirmed speakers and moderators for our 16th annual James River Writers Conference. Keep checking here because we’ll be adding to this amazing list as additional speakers are confirmed.

Confirmed Speakers

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Xhenet Aliu’s debut novel, Brass (Random House, 2018), was named a Spring 2018 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and was included in must-read and best books lists from The New York Times, Elle, Southern Living, Real Simple, Huffington Post, Book Riot, Elite Daily, Bustle, The Millions, Christian Science Monitor, and more. Her previous story collection, Domesticated Wild Things and Other Stories, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.

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Moderator: Kristi Tuck Austin waded New York City sewers, ran from trains, and slid through a water pipe to the Harlem River while researching her novels. She’s celebrated Thanksgiving in the Paris catacombs, hiking, crawling, wading (again), and dining by candlelight. In her daily life, which is dry and above ground, she’s founder of Tuck Austin Associates, a literary and media services company that helps authors connect with readers. She’s a former board chair of James River Writers and JRW Conference chair. @KristiAustin

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Melanie Bishop (MFA) taught creative writing for twenty-two years at Prescott College and founded their literary magazine, Alligator Juniper, three-time winner of the AWP Directors’ Prize. Her young adult novel, My So-Called Ruined Life (Torrey House Press, 2014), was a top-five finalist for CLMP’s Firecracker Awards and Binghamton University’s John Gardner Award. Currently, Bishop offers instruction, editing, coaching, and retreats in Prescott, AZ, and Carmel, CA. She reviews books for Carmel Magazine, Huffington Post, and New York Journal of Books@MelBishopWriter 

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Bill Blume discovered his love for the written word while in high school and has been writing ever since. He’s the author of the young adult Gidion Keep, Vampire Hunter series. His short stories have been published in many fantasy anthologies and various ezines. Just like the father figure in his first novel, Bill works as a 911 dispatcher and has done so for more than 15 years. @BillTheWildcat


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Ashley Brooks is a partner at a nationally known entertainment firm, Schroder Brooks PLC. Ashley focuses her practice on media, marketing, and advertising law and works with clients in a range of industries including writing, publishing, advertising, animation, and production.


2018 Speakers and Moderators

Moderator: Ellen F. Brown is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in many print and online publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Virginia Living, and The Rumpus. She co-authored the book Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood and is now working on a book about literary estates. She has a law degree and an MFA in nonfiction writing and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. @Ellenfbrown

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Clay McLeod Chapman is the creator of the rigorous storytelling session The Pumpkin Pie Show. Publications: nothing untoward, rest area, miss corpus, and The Tribe trilogy–Homeroom Headhunters, Camp Cannibal, and Academic Assassins. Film: The Boy (SXSW 2015), Henley (Sundance 2012), and Late Bloomer (Sundance 2005). Comics: Lazaretto, Self Storage, Edge of Spider-Verse and Venomverse, The Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man, and American Vampire. He is a writing instructor at The Actors Studio MFA Program at Pace University. @claymcleod

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Sona Charaipotra spends much of her time poking plot holes in shows like Riverdale–for work, of course. As the co-founder of the boutique book packager CAKE Literary, Sona’s mission is to get more diverse and deliciously high concept books for kids and teens onto shelves. She’s co-author of the YA dance dramas Tiny Pretty Things and Shiny Broken Pieces, and author of the upcoming Prognosis: Love & Death. Sona is also a proud We Need Diverse Books team member. As a journalist, she has written for everyone from The New York Times to TeenVogue. @sona_c


Moderator: Shawna Christos has written software, manuals, etc. for a variety of companies, including a local Fortune 500 company, earning inter-company recognition and awards for graphics, art, computer, and database work. A long-time supporter of James River Writers, she has served on the board of directors and many different committees, including the conference committee. Currently she is at work writing novels–including young adult, middle grade, and adult–and dabbling with poetry, tweets, art, and more. @ywrite

2018 Speakers and Moderators

David Coogan is an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail, the creative culmination of a writing class in which ten men explore the conditions, traps, and turning points on their paths to imprisonment as well as the redemptive power of memoir.


2018 Speakers and Moderators

Tyree Daye is a poet from Youngsville, NC. He is the winner of the 2017 APR/Honickman First Book Prize for his book River Hymns (APR, 2017). Daye is a 2017 Ruth Lilly Finalist and Cave Canem fellow and longtime member of the editorial staff at Raleigh Review. He received his MFA in poetry from North Carolina State University. Daye’s work has been published in Prairie Schooner, The New York Times, and Nashville Review. Daye recently won the Amy Clampitt Residency for 2018 and The Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award for his poems in the Fall 2015 issue.

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Wendy DeGroat’s poetry has appeared in Cider Press Review, Rust + Moth, Common-place, Raleigh Review, Mslexia and elsewhere. Her chapbook Beautiful Machinery was published in 2016 and she has a documentary poetry manuscript in progress. Wendy is a librarian in RVA, where she also teaches workshops and curates poetryriver.org, a resource site for contemporary American poetry and docupoetry. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, you’ll find her on the river or in the woods. @poetryriver

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Roben Farzad is the author of Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Partied and Plotted to Control Miami (Penguin, 2017) and hosts Full Disclosure (available on NPR One and iTunes). Find him on the web at HotelScarface.com and on Twitter @RobenFarzad.  


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Melissa Febos is the author of the memoirs Abandon Me and Whip Smart. Her work has appeared in Glamour, Salon, The New York Times, Bitch Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story, and The Center for Women Writers. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and serves on the Board of Directors for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. @melissafebos

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Jessica Felleman represents fun pop culture non-fiction, popular science, history, and psychology, as well as contemporary literary memoirs, graphic novels, commercial and literary fiction, historical fiction, and fiction that balances on the edge of genre—especially science fiction and fantasy. She loves fresh stories about magic, family, everyday people doing extraordinary things, and unforgettable places. Jessica began working at Foundry Literary + Media in 2015, where she is actively building her list. @jmfelleman

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Becoming an agent was fitting for the girl who, as a small child, begged for a book because it “had a hard cover.” Moe Ferrara had a difficult time finding YA books outside of Christopher Pike when she was growing up and instead tackled her mom’s romance novels. Though her career path zigzagged a bit–she attended college as a music major, earned a JD from Pace Law School, then worked various publishing jobs–Moe was thrilled to join the BookEnds team in May of 2015 as a literary agent and their subsidiary rights director. @inthesestones

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Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas earned MFAs in creative nonfiction writing and literary translation from The University of Iowa. She is the author of Drown Sever Sing from Anomalous Press and Don’t Come Back from Mad River Books, as well as editor, with Sarah Viren, of the forthcoming anthology Essaying the Americas. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and translation work has been featured in journals including Bellingham Review, Chicago Review, Fourth Genre, Brevity, Poets & Writers, and The Sunday Rumpus, among others. She won Best of the Net and Iron Horse Review’s Discovered Voices Award, has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and is a Rona Jaffe fellow. She moved from Colombia to China to Columbus, OH, to Richmond, VA, where she works as an assistant professor for Virginia Commonwealth University. @LMFCV

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Lamar Giles is the author of the 2015 Edgar® Award Nominee Fake ID, the 2016 Edgar® Award Nominee Endangered from HarperCollins, and Overturned from Scholastic Press, a Kirkus Reviews Best YA Novel 2017. His latest novels Spin (Scholastic), and The Last Last-Day-of-Summer (HMH/Versify) will publish in 2019. He is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books, and a faculty member in the Spalding University MFA program. He resides in Virginia with his wife. @LRGiles 

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Alex Gino loves glitter, ice cream, gardening, awe-ful puns, and stories that reflect the diversity and complexity of being alive. They would take a quiet coffee date with a friend over a loud and crowded party any day. A former LSAT tutor who never touched law school, Alex can still talk your ear off about sufficient and necessary conditions. They are a proud We Need Diverse Books team member. Born and raised on Staten Island, NY, Alex lives in Oakland, CA. @lxgino

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Dr. Rashida Gray is a practicing psychiatrist in Richmond, VA, where she treats a range of mental health conditions affecting adults. She attended Xavier University of Louisiana for undergraduate studies, Drexel University College of Medicine, and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for her residency. She is happily married to her best friend and the mother of a future film director and a future pediatric surgeon. She loves to be around creative people.

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Leah Henderson is the author of One Shadow on the Wall, an Africana Children’s Book notable book and a Bank Street “Best Book of 2017” starred for outstanding merit. Her work appears in the YA anthology Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America and her forthcoming picture books include A Day For Rememberin’ and Mamie on the Mound. She volunteers for Kweli Journal and We Need Diverse Books events. Leah received her MFA from Spalding University and lives in Washington, D.C. @LeahsMark

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Phaedra Hise is a lifelong journalist who started her career at Inc Magazine. She has written five books, and has worked with national publications including Fortune, Popular Mechanics, Glamour, and the Wall Street Journal. Phaedra currently works in brand publishing and heads the content department for Legacy Navigator. She also writes regularly about food, and lives in Richmond, VA, with her family. @hiphaedra

Doug Jones Playwright and Writing Teacher

Moderator: Douglas Jones has written and seen produced more than forty plays and screenplays, including the musical Bojangles (music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Sammy Cahn), The Turn of The Screw, and his award-winning Songs from Bedlam, which will be performed at Firehouse Theatre in fall 2018. His film 1607: A Nation Takes Root is on display at Jamestown Settlement & Yorktown Victory Center. He teaches at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and The Visual Arts Center, and is a member of The Dramatists Guild. 

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Dara Kaye is an agent and foreign rights director at Ross Yoon, a DC-based agency known for collaborative editing and award-winning adult nonfiction. Currently open to narrative nonfiction and scifi/fantasy, Dara is seeking projects that amplify underrepresented voices and thrive on unexpected intersections of styles and topics.

Before joining Ross Yoon, Dara spent two years in South Korea on a Fulbright fellowship teaching English and researching the history of Shakespeare in Korea. @darakaye.

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Meg Kearney is author of Home By Now, winner of the 2010 PEN New England LL Winship Poetry Award; An Unkindness of Ravens; three YA novels-in-verse: The Secret of Me, The Girl in the Mirror, and When You Never Said Godobye; and the award-winning picture book, Trouper. Her poetry has been featured on Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry and Garrison Keillor’s A Writer’s Almanac. She directs the Solstice MFA Program at Pine Manor College in Massachusetts. @KearneyMeg

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Dean King is the author of The Feud, which the WSJ called, “popular history as it ought to be written,” and nine other books. His national bestseller Skeletons on the Zahara was translated into ten languages and optioned by Steven Spielberg. Dean is the chief story teller of two History Channel documentaries and a producer of its unscripted series Hatfields and McCoys. His writing appears in Esquire, Granta, Outside, and The New York Times. @deanhking

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Lana Krumwiede began her writing career by creating stories and poems for publications such as Highlights, High Five, Spider, Babybug, The Friend, and Chicken Soup for the Child’s Soul. Her first novel, Freakling (Candlewick, 2012) was named a finalist for SCBWI’s Crystal Kite Member’s Choice Award and an honor book for the International Reading Association’s Intermediate Fiction Award. Freakling was followed by two more novels, Archon (2013) and True Son (2015). Lana is also the author of the picture book Just Itzy (2015) and editor of the anthology River City Secrets: Stories from Richmond (2016). She lives with her husband and daughter in Midlothian, VA. @LanaKrumwiede

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Chad Luibl is a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates. Previously he has worked at the National Endowment for the Arts and overseas as an ESL teacher in Hungary and Poland. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. @chad_luibl


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Moderator: Annette Marquis is the author of Resistance: A Memoir of Civil Disobedience in Maricopa County, and co-author of over twenty-five software books. Her writing has been anthologized in The Women of Katrina: How Gender, Race, and Class Matter in an American Disaster, Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives, and other collections. Annette works as Program Director for James River Writers and is the owner of Wordswomen.com. @annettemarquis

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Victoria Christopher Murray attended Hampton University, then attended New York University where she received her MBA. With 30 novels, Victoria has received numerous awards including the Phyllis Wheatley Trailblazer Award, nine African American Literary Awards, and she has four NAACP Image Award nominations. In 2016, she won the Image Award for Outstanding Literature for her social commentary novel, Stand Your Ground. Several of Victoria’s novels are optioned for movies, including her Seven Deadly Sins series. @VictoriaECM


Moderator: Erica Orloff is the author of 25 novels, including the award-winning Magickeepers series (writing as Erica Kirov). Her books have been translated into 13 languages, none of which she speaks unless you count high school French. An in-demand speaker and workshop presenter, Erica was the writer-in-residence at one of the nation’s top high schools. She was nominated for the Pushcart for her essay “Choose Me” on motherhood following loss. She is this year’s board chair of the James River Writers. @ericaorloff

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Rebekah L. Pierce is an avid playwright and author, with her works focusing on contemporary women and their search for purpose and identity. She received her MA in English with a concentration in literature from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2002, which is where she wrote her first play, The Myth. An African-American military veteran and entrepreneur, she knows her purpose is to give a voice to women from all walks of life through her plays and publication. She is also Founder & CEO of The Pierce Agency, LLC, as well as RLP Productions, and is a motivational speaker, English teacher, and mother. @rebekahpierce

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Beth Phelan has been working in literary agencies since 2010, holding positions at Scott Waxman Agency, Morhaim Literary, and The Bent Agency, before landing at Gallt & Zacker in late 2017. She represents mainly middle-grade and young adult fiction and gravitates toward stories and characters that inspire, and anything with a touch of humor and the bittersweet. Beth is also the creator of #DVpit, a Twitter pitch event for marginalized voices. @beth_phelan

Virginia Pye

Virginia Pye is the author of the short story collection, Shelf Life of Happiness (2018, Press 53) and two award-winning novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust (2015 and 2013, Unbridled Books). Her essays and stories have appeared in Literary Hub, The New York Times, The Rumpus, The North American Review, Tampa Review, Failbetter, and elsewhere. Long-time former chair of JRW, she now lives in Cambridge, MA. @VirginiaPye

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Pavana Reddy is an LA-based writer and poet. Her first book, Rangoli, features a collection of poetry which travels through the dynamics of diaspora and colorism across both borderlines and cultures. Her work has been featured by noteworthy luminaries such as Anoushka Shankar, who invited Pavana to write a song for her Grammy nominated album, Land of Gold. The track, “Remain the Sea,” consists of a poem by Reddy read by the critically acclaimed actress, Vanessa Redgrave. @mazadohta

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David L. Robbins began writing fiction in 1997 and has published fourteen novels, with repeated visits to the NY Times best-seller list. He is also an award-winning screenwriter, essayist, and playwright. David is a founder of James River Writers; co-founder of the Podium Foundation, which supports the practice of writing for Richmond area youth; and creator of The Mighty Pen Project, helping Virginia veterans turn their memories of service into written narratives. The Virginia Commission for the Arts named David one of the two Most Influential Literary Artists in the state for the last 50 years. @DavidLRobbins


Brian Rock writes funny books for kids. As a former teacher, he knows that kids are more apt to read what they like. According to the Kids & Family Reading Report, 70% of kids want to read a book that will make them laugh and 54% want books that allow them to use their imagination. So, all his books are at least 70% funny and 54% creative! @brianrockwrites

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Rebecca Scherer began her publishing career at the Jane Rotrosen Agency in 2012 after earning a BA in English Literature, Political Science, and German from the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter. At JRA, she was offered the unique opportunity to work within each agency department to gain a deep understanding of the business before going on to become an agent. She represents commercial fiction across genres, with particular interest in women’s fiction, crime/mystery, suspense, book club fiction, and upmarket/literary-leaning fiction. @RebeccaLScherer

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Moderator: Melissa Scott Sinclair is an award-winning journalist and editor. Her recent work has appeared in Richmond magazine and the nonfiction anthology Life In 10 Minutes. Her short story “Everything Must Go,” a ghost story set in the decaying corporate headquarters of Circuit City, was published in the anthology Richmond Macabre.


2018 Speakers and Moderators

Iman Shabazz is a theatre artist whose professional career spans over two decades, encompassing, acting, directing, writing, producing, dramaturgy, arts administration, public speaking, emceeing, dancing and vocal percussion. He is a student of the late theatrical legend Ernie McClintock and is quite active and influential in the performing arts culture of Richmond. Now Artistic Director of African American Repertory Theatre of Virginia he seeks to use his talent as a tool for liberation and healing. @theimanshabazz

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Laurie Gwen Shapiro is a native of New York City’s Lower East Side, where she still resides. She has written articles for publications including The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, Slate, Aeon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and has her own history column focusing on unsung heroes for The Forward. Shapiro is also a documentary filmmaker who won an Independent Spirit Award for directing IFC’s Keep the River On Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale and an Emmy nomination for producing HBO’s Finishing Heaven. The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica is her first non-fiction book. @LaurieStories

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Latoya C. Smith has over a decade of editorial experience, having worked for publishers such as Teri Woods Publishing, Kensington Publishing, Grand Central Publishing, and Samhain Publishing. She is the winner of numerous awards and provides editorial services and agenting through her company, LCS Literary Services. @GlamEditor_Girl


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Moderator: Patricia (Patty) Smith is the author of the novel The Year of Needy Girls (Kaylie Jones Books/Akashic 2017), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Her work has appeared most recently in Parhelion Literary Magazine and the anthologies Older Queer Voices: The Intimacy of Survival and Nine Lives: A Life in Ten Minutes Anthology. She teaches American Literature and Creative Writing at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg, VA. @pattysmith711 

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Steven K. Smith is the author of ten books including the middle grade series The Virginia Mysteries and Brother Wars. His other works include the parenting memoir Splashing in the Deep End and the adult fiction novel Harborwood (as Steven Sawyer). His first book, Summer of the Woods, is in development for film. Steven lives in Midlothian, VA, with his wife and three sons. @stevenksmith1

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Kris Spisak began her career as a college writing instructor; however, after six years in the classroom, she transitioned to professional writing and editing. Helping writers sharpen their craft was the driving force behind her book, Get a Grip on your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused (Career Press, 2017), and the creation of her writing program, Grammartopia. Kris is on the board of directors of James River Writers and is the co-founder of Midlothian Web Solutions. @KrisSpisak

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Moderator: Kristin Swenson, Ph.D. is the author of The Misunderstood Bible: On What’s Forgotten, Ignored, or Just Plain Weird about the World’s Most Famous Book (forthcoming); God of Earth: Discovering a Radically Ecological Christianity; Tell Mister Lincoln (biopic of Harriet Tubman), and Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked about Book of All Time, among others and is blogging about the kitchen. She is associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (affiliate) and a fellow at the Virginia Humanities in Charlottesville, where she lives with a guy and a dog. @kristinswenson

Robert Toms

Robert Toms retired from an almost thirty-year career in law enforcement to pursue writing and currently serves on the JRW board. While advancing to the rank of Lieutenant, he attended local, state, and federal government training and wrote articles, which were published in trade magazines. His law enforcement career involved working in specialized fields, including patrol, criminal investigations, background and security clearance investigations, interstate criminal extraditions, executive protection, and command-level supervision.

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Rashika Wallace is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) practicing in Richmond, VA, and surrounding areas. She has a private practice working with individuals, families, groups, and couples. She specializes in depression, anxiety, grief, and stress. Rashika has a passion for working with victims of trauma and adolescent to young adult females. She has over thirteen years of experience working with adults with mental illnesses, families, couples, and at-risk youths and their families.

2018 Speakers and Moderators

Brian Weakland is an honors graduate of Penn State’s School of Journalism. He has taught writing courses at Penn State and at the University of Pittsburgh. He lectures at Brown College, University of Virginia. Brian has authored three mystery novels and seven nationally award-winning screenplays. In 2013, he won the Writer’s Guild award for best drama screenplay at the Austin Film Festival. He is represented by Madhouse Entertainment in Los Angeles, CA.

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Moderator: A.B. Westrick is the author of Brotherhood (Viking/Penguin Random House 2013), a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults pick, and winner of the Jefferson Cup, Housatonic, Jane Addams Honor, and Notable Trade Book Awards. She lives near Richmond, VA, teaches in Western Connecticut State University’s low-residency MFA program, and blogs monthly about the craft of writing. She’s currently revising a contemporary middle grade novel set at summer music camp. @ABWestrick


Moderator: Michael Paul Williams is a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. A graduate of Virginia Union University and Northwestern University, he won Virginia Press Association awards for column writing in 1992, 1994, 2007, and 2014. During 1999-2000, he was one of a dozen U.S. journalists awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. He was the 2010 recipient of the George Mason Award for outstanding contributions to Virginia journalism, given by the Virginia Pro Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists. He has also received a 2012 Humanitarian Award from the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities and the 2014 Will Rogers Humanitarian Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. @RTDMPW

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Kristina Wright lives in Virginia with her husband and their two sons. She’s a freelance parenting and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in dozens of print and digital publications such as USA Today, Washington Post, and Charleston Style & Design. She also has a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, reviews parenting books for Your Teen Magazine, and writes about books and entertainment for BookBub. Oh, and she really loves coffee. @kristinawright

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Author and attorney Pamela Samuels Young is best known for tackling important social issues in her fast-paced legal thrillers. Her novel Anybody’s Daughter won the prestigious NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Fiction. Her many novels include two young adaptations, #Anybody’s Daughter and #Abuse of Discretion, as well as an erotic suspense novella, Unlawful Desires, written under the pen name Sassy Sinclair. Pamela is a graduate of USC and also earned graduate degrees from Northwestern University and UC Berkeley School of Law. @authorPSY