Two imaginary boys are helping to revolutionize the tourism industry in New Jersey.
Nicky Fifth and his friend T-Bone were created by Lisa Funari-Willever in 1998. As a fourth grade teacher, she says she was troubled by the lack of interesting materials available for teaching about New Jersey.
Most of the available resources were “awful,” Funari-Willever said. So, she set out to solve the problem.
As the published author of a picture book, she was already in the process of planning her first chapter book and decided that instead of creating a fictional setting, her story would take place in New Jersey.
Six books later, Nicky Fifth and T-Bone have visited nearly 100 New Jersey landmarks from iconic sites like the Cape May Lighthouse to lesser known establishments like The Antique Emporium in Burlington.
The characters have certainly given teachers better tools for teaching students about New Jersey history and geography but have also given new life to the Garden State’s forgotten treasures.
“Readers have really taken to the characters,” Funari-Willever said. “This new phenomenon is that families are now running around the state getting stamps and pictures” at many of the places Nicky Fifth and T-Bone visit. Kids now want to “see what the characters see.”
An innovative passport system at the back of each book helps kids track the places they visit. At the landmarks’ physical locations, kids can ask for their passports to be stamped with a special “N5 stamp.”
As a sign of appreciation for their impact on tourism numbers, the duo was recently named “Official Junior Ambassadors” for the state. Funari-Willever testified on their behalf and the measure was unanimously approved by the state legislature.
“I wish I could have masterminded” the books’ effect on tourism, said Funari-Willever, but she is as surprised as anyone at the overwhelming response.
Funari-Willever now spends much of her time visiting as many as 70-80 schools each year to talk about writing the books.
One thing she’s noticed is that children are proud of the state and are proud to live in New Jersey, the same state as Nicky Fifth she says.
Students active involvement with the books sparked an “overwhelmingly popular” contest. The contest asks students to submit persuasive essays convincing Funari-Willever to send Nicky Fifth and T-Bone to their favorite New Jersey landmark, with the winner becomming a featured character in the next book.
This year, many students wrote about Carlo’s City Hall Bake Shop, home of TLC’s popular show, “Cake Boss.” The winning entry caught the judges’ attention because it focused on the history of the bakery.
The essay’s author, Tessy Colegrove, happens to be the niece of Carlo’s owner, Buddy Valastro. She is now a character in Nicky Fifth’s New Jersey, where Nicky Fifth and T-Bone visit the bakery.
Funari-Willever said that an upcoming episode of Cake Boss will feature the celebration for Colegrove’s winning essay.
There have been other unexpected surprises for Nicky Fifth and T-Bone lately. Funari-Willever was recently contacted by NJ Transit, who asked for permission to use the characters in an upcoming rail safety campaign.
She also met recently with the New Jersey Education Association to discuss creating a show for public television.
“New Jersey’s image is so distorted” by reality television, said Funari-Willever, and it certainly is not the most flattering picture.
There is “so much to explore here… It’s an amazing and different state and its history is phenomenal.”
She is grateful that the books “make every child an ambassador. The more people talk about New Jersey, the better it is for everyone here.”