“It’s like a big community hug.”

Those words, from my Book Buzz buddy Dawn Kitchell describe the essence of Family Reading Night, held last Friday evening. A record crowd attended.

Over 700 gathered to celebrate reading in an era when words and illustrations on the page are being hard hit by technology, e-books and ever-increasing distractions competing for our time.

In a world of iPhones, TV, apps, laptops, Wii games, and DVDs, people squeezed into Washington Middle High in record numbers to celebrate the simple pleasure of hearing a book read, an author/illustrator speak and our local police and fire departments act out skits reminiscent of small town productions from the good ol’ days of school carnivals, ice cream socials and gospel gatherings on green lawns.

Who’d have guessed the evening would be such an overwhelming success? It didn’t start out that way.

Dawn phoned early. An expected snowfall — school was canceled — the event might be too. But a short time later, sunshine came via the school district. Despite double 13s, the 13th annual Family Reading Night was a go.

Yeah, I thought, as I headed to the airport to pick up Kenneth Kraegel our guest author flying in from Michigan to talk about his picture book, “King Arthur’s Very Great Grandson.” He arrived a few minutes late, giving me time to set up a lunch with Ken and the winner of the poster contest, Lexi Harrison, and her mother Diana.

The 12-year-old, and about 100 other students, submitted posters in an “All Fired Up About Reading” contest to win a school visit from Ken.

Of course Marthasville Elementary School, where Lexi goes to school, was closed. Luck was with us again. I was able to contact Lexi, and the four of us had lunch at Joe’s Deli.

It was heartwarming to hear about Lexi’s passion for art. She was pleased when she got her poster finished, only to be crushed when her little sister spilled lemonade on it. Lexi didn’t draw out the drama; she put her pencils to the metal, creating a poster like the one that had been ruined.

Life teaches tough lessons and disappointment can bring us down. It threatened early Friday evening as Ken and I stood looking at the stage decorations, a knight, dragon, Cyclops—figures taken straight from his book. The WMS students and their teacher Danielle had worked so hard on them, but minutes before the start of Family Reading Night only a few people were on the bleachers to see the students’ talent on display.

I’m not sure when the blitz hit, but by the time Ken began his presentation, there wasn’t any empty seat in the house, the crowd spilled over onto the sides of the gym, standing room only.

An event’s success can be measured solely in the numbers that attend. But the heart and soul of Family Reading Night is especially noteworthy in the moments and memories — in hearing that over 25 pounds of popcorn were served up by our trusty corn popper Jane, in seeing a team of husky high school athletes in uniform picking out the perfect book to read, in witnessing a crowd cackling at the antics of an Ugly Duckling police officer shedding feathers as he cavorted on stage and in watching in amazement as a trusty fire department stopped short their skit to exit stage left to answer a fire call, only to return to the middle school rather than call it a night.

Hard work, love of community, teamwork and a solid belief that reading is far and away the most important message we can spread abounds at Family Reading Night, held annually the first Friday in March. Raised on Family Reading Night, high school and college students have cut their teeth on Baby Buzz and Book Buzz. Now they’re passing the sweet torch on to little ones following in their footsteps.

And that, my friends, is the bee’s knees!