From the imagination of a former White House speechwriter—and his own kids—comes an inside look at White House administrations throughout history through the eyes of its youngest residents.

Sean O’Brien’s White House Clubhouse is a new middle grade series from Norton Young Readers that’s centered around a hidden lair connecting the children of sitting U.S. presidents across time. The first book, which has the same title, is scheduled for release on October 3, and PW got an exclusive look at the cover, featuring art by Karyn Lee.

O’Brien served as director of speechwriting to then–Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, as well as a special assistant to former President Barack Obama, when his own children were young. Visiting their dad at work meant spending time in historic buildings such as the White House, the Capitol, and the Pentagon.

“They’ve had this opportunity to run around in places that folks don’t normally see,” O’Brien said of Jay and Clare, who are now in eighth and sixth grade, respectively.

As a first grader, Jay asked, “What if there were some kids living in the White House who could play with other kids from another time?”

O’Brien helped his children explore the idea as a playful back-and-forth. “I would pass notes within their lunchboxes with different questions—what should they have for dinner?” he said. “Should it be two kids, three kids?”

Together they read books about presidential pets, lingering on the details of President Theodore Roosevelt’s unlikely White House menagerie. In addition to six children, the family had dozens of animals, including a hyena, a badger, and even a pony, which famously found its way onto a newly installed elevator and into the second-floor room of Archie Roosevelt.

Putting Pen to Paper

O’Brien, who now teaches speechwriting at Georgetown University, said that the end of the Obama administration—and extra time on his hands—gave him the opportunity to “get back to that book idea we had and start cranking through it.”

His daughter, Clare, ended up taking on “a pretty heavy editorial role,” he said. “She’d be reading things that I had written, saying, ‘Daddy, I don’t understand this, now you need to change this.’ ” (In the book’s trailer, both generations discuss their process.)

The final product centers on present-day fictional First Daughters Marissa and Clara, who stumble on the clubhouse through the State Dining Room and travel back to the turn of the 20th century, where they meet the Roosevelt children. When they discover that the president’s plans for “progress”—a series of dams—could have devastating environmental consequences, they stow away on the President’s 1903 cross-country railroad trip to intervene.

Acquiring editor Simon Boughton, publishing director at Norton Young Readers, told PW that he was first drawn to the series because of O’Brien’s storytelling, which weaves together his family’s early ideas with historical facts, famous speeches, and first-person accounts, including Alice Roosevelt’s autobiography.

“There’s a quality to the scene-setting and the stakes that feels timely and contemporary,” Boughton said. “At the same time, he delivers these nice set-piece moments, where the kids encounter the president, and those don’t feel pasted together from history. They feel like real, authentic storytelling.”

All the kids in White House Clubhouse are defined not by their parents’ accomplishments but by their own efforts to save a giant sequoia and stop the construction of dams threatening the Sierra Mountains. “That goes back to what Roosevelt was all about: taking action,” O’Brien said. “He was one of the most active presidents of all time.”

Now at work on the follow-up to White House Clubhouse, the team is once again talking about what presidential family might make a good story, keeping in mind the complexity of American history. “Even Roosevelt [is a] very complicated figure,” O’Brien said. “We tried to ask: What makes them interesting? And how is this going be relevant to a current reader?”

The goal is a series that’s fun to read and tells readers something about the higher aspirations of our democracy, Boughton said. “One of the things that’s great about Roosevelt’s character is that he did have this sort of idealism about the individual in service of the nation. It’s not just educational; it’s enjoyable.”

White House Clubhouse by Sean O’Brien. Norton Young Readers, $17.95 Oct. 3 ISBN 978-1-324-05292-0