Children's book characters Nicky Fifth and T-Bone have been promoted to "junior ambassadors" to promote New Jersey tourism and repair a tarnished state image that officials blame partly on Snooki and the Situation.

The state Assembly's Tourism and the Arts Committee took the action Friday at a hearing in Burlington City held to determine the needs of the region's history-tour planners and festival organizers.

Chairman Matthew W. Milam (D., Cape May) said he wanted the committee to see historic Burlington City, founded in 1677, to "get a visual" that could help the legislators fight for tourism funding.

Nicky Fifth children's books, set in New Jersey, have been warmly embraced by children, Milam said. Making Nicky and T-Bone, the books' lead characters, ambassadors will encourage school districts to include author Lisa Funari-Willever's titles in their curriculums.

Funari-Willever, a former fourth-grade teacher from Trenton, said she created the wholesome fictional characters "as a tool to showcase the state." She has devoted two chapters to Burlington City sites.

She was surprised to see that the books were so closely followed, she said at the meeting, and that children and their families had begun visiting the sites she promotes.

When Funari-Willever said she was about to release her fifth book, in which her characters explore the Jersey Shore, Milam suggested she title it The Other Jersey Shore. Committee members said they were upset at how MTV's reality show Jersey Shore portrays the state.

"You should never underestimate the power of books on children," said Assemblyman Jack Conners (D., Burlington).

The committee also heard from Burlington City Mayor James Fazzone, who said the city needed money to promote its many sites.

"Research indicates tourism and the arts are the two most important factors in bringing a historic city back," Fazzone said.

"One of our major initiatives," he said, "is to have surrounding schools take their children on tours" of sites such as the 1685 Revell House, believed to have been visited by Benjamin Franklin, and the home of Capt. James Lawrence, who is credited with saying "Don't give up the ship" when he was commander of the USS Chesapeake in the War of 1812.

"But we do not have the money to market and get the word out," Fazzone said. Other city officials said money was needed to maintain and repair the historic buildings.

State Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington) also attended the hearing, which drew about 30 officials and residents.

"Tourism isn't just the beach," Allen said. "There's so many other things ready to be tapped to make New Jersey a great destination . . . and Burlington is one of them."

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or