Nicky Fifth's Garden State AdventureOnce upon a time there was a small state with a huge population and hundreds of amazing offerings. By all accounts, this state should have been very prosperous, even in the most challenging of economic times. You see, this small state was perfect for all families, even those that  were limited in how far they could travel. The options were abundant and varied, from mountains and beaches to cities and suburbs. The state’s tourism industry should have been virtually recession-proof, as exploring this state could be accomplished on a tank of gas, without airfare or hotels.

But a recession came anyway.  While everyone wondered how to turn the situation around, something remarkable was quietly happening in classrooms throughout the state.  I created the Nicky Fifth series of chapter books that were set in this amazing place called New Jersey. I believed the key to solving the problem wasn’t to reach the already over-scheduled parents, but to grab the attention of curious, enthusiastic children. For years, I taught New Jersey studies in a fourth-grade classroom in Trenton and I felt that education and promotion need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, I believed the excitement created when the two were combined would serve as a catalyst for family exploration, knowledge, and appreciation.  As a partner in Franklin Mason Press, an independent publishing house and our family business, I knew the main characters, Nicky Fifth and T-Bone could breathe new life into the state’s travel and tourism industry.  We had everything we needed right here in New Jersey; now we just had to remind people.

Luckily, NJEA also saw the value in combining promotion and education.  It recognized the demands placed upon teachers and saw the value in combining two very important subjects, New Jersey and literature.  NJEA supported the efforts of Franklin Mason Press to share the series with teachers and their students. The Association sponsored a contest that invited children from all over the state to actively participate and submit their favorite New Jersey destinations. NJEA saw an opportunity to promote reading, family time, amazing attractions, businesses and communities while boosting the tourism sector of the economy.

Schools adopted the series as part of their curriculum and teachers created the most inventive extension activities. Students connected to the characters and responded to the “Jersey humor.” And families, well families topped them all. When children gushed with excitement that the places they read about were actually located in New Jersey, the day trip was reborn. They started dragging their families all over the state. Slowly, attendance at museums, landmarks, and state parks and forests grew.  Families were leaving the comfort of their county or their favorite beach to see what else they might find. Franklin Mason Press started adding passports to the back of the books to motivate families to see the state firsthand. One exciting outing led to another and passports were quickly being filled.

Raising Nicky Fifth and T-Bone to Junior Ambassador status

Nicky Fifth's Passport to the Garden StateEventually, the state recognized the contributions of Nicky Fifth and T-Bone and three bills were created to elevate them to the position of Official Junior Ambassadors. Rising above the fray of politics and party lines, the bills came from both sides of the aisle. Children across the state monitored the Nicky Fifth website and patiently waited for word that the bill had passed. In April 2011, the Assembly bill was successfully voted out of committee and children celebrated. In December 2011, the Senate bill was successfully voted out of committee and again, they celebrated. Children from every corner of the state waited for the bill to be scheduled for that final vote.

Sadly, they’re still waiting. The bills were never scheduled for the full vote and a new legislative session commenced in 2012. Disappointed children learned that the bill would need to be converted and re-introduced. They weren’t exactly sure what that meant, but they knew it didn’t mean soon. As an author who visits nearly 70 schools each year, I started receiving letters from kids all over the state. After reading these letters, I knew what needed to be done. The emails and letters were so passionate and could be very effective; they were just going to the wrong person.

You see, as a publisher, I have the authority to do some very cool things. I have each of my books benefit a children’s charity, from Duchenne muscular dystrophy to Autism Speaks. I save room for children to have their work published and my latest contest, Nicky Fifth’s New Jersey, actually sent Nicky and T-Bone to places my readers suggested.  A few of my readers even became characters. And while I knew how Nicky and T-Bone could reignite tourism, I hardly had the authority to schedule a bill. So, I decided to harness the creativity and spirit of New Jersey’s kids, our most valuable resource, to preserve and enhance our other valuable resources.  

A new contest emerges

If you have a class full of characters, then my new contest, Nicky Fifth’s Race to the State House, is the contest for you. Individual students and classes are invited to find the most creative ways to let the Legislature know that New Jersey really needs Nicky Fifth and T-Bone as Official Junior Ambassadors. You can write letters, a song, or a poem, make posters, create a video, invent a Nicky Fifth and T-Bone dance, or do anything that you believe will be effective and memorable.

Sure there are prizes! The third-place class gets mentioned in the book and each student receives the new book, Nicky Fifth Says Vote For T-Bone. Second place also gets mentioned in the book, each student receives the new book, and Nicky Fifth and T-Bone throw a class pizza party. First place wins the grand prize: each student receives a copy of the new book, Nicky Fifth and T-Bone throw a pizza party, and each student and teacher in that class becomes a character in the story.

Visit the website for all grade levels and areas of curriculum. It’s a free resource we have created with the help of our talented interns to bring New Jersey to life. On this site, you can show your class photo galleries and videos, use numerous activities, and enter all of the contests. Plus, there’s a link to Nicky and T-Bone’s, age-appropriate, all-New-Jersey-content Facebook page that provides a daily New Jersey fun fact or upcoming event.

As an author, I have always been very passionate about writing, but never in my career have I felt so strongly about the books I have written. By teaching New Jersey through literature, teachers have an enjoyable way to share New Jersey, and ensure all of our students know where they live: in the great state of New Jersey.

Lisa Funari-Willever is a former NJEA member and award-winning author of 18 books. She created Nicky Fifth chapter books to introduce students to the hundreds of amazing offerings in the Garden State and she visits 70 schools each year. She can be reached at