When I was growing up in the 1950's and 1960's, there was a quiet revolution taking place in the children's literature genre. American "juvenile" literature has a long and complex history, and each segment has its adherents and defenders. But with the appearance of J.R.R. Tolkien's Ring Trilogy in the mid-1950's, British fantasy literature took a big leap forward. Tolkien, of course, wasn't alone; he was part of a movement in Great Britain, a group of writers known as The Inklings, several of whom drew parallel inspiration from Medieval texts and history, to create a new kind of genre, juvenile-myth-quest narratives, in verse or prose, aimed fuzzily at the juvenile book audience (most kids wouldn't have been able to appreciate this stuff until they were at least, say, 12 or 13, since the language and plotting and imaginative tropes were quite elaborate). Some grown-ups found them as interesting as adult literature, though this appreciation was rather in the way of admiration than of fascinated seduction.
As a child, I grew up being read to relentlessly. I didn't warm to this regimen for several years. My parents knew I must become literate, at an early age, and they insisted that regular sessions of reading take place in the evenings. They supplied the texts, and I was put on the usual reading list for American children of that time (1950's). This was before the British juvenile revolution, so it didn't include knights and ladies and jousts and holy grails and woodsy copses and great stone castles with moats and dragons and sorcerers and monks and keltic rituals.
Aside from the preoccupation with Ancient and Medieval settings, the predominant characteristic of these stories was their "cuteness." In the decades since the phenomenal success of the Ring series, there have been many imitators--in fact, fantasy as a genre has exploded, and now occupies a significant segment of the select audience spectrum, both here and in England. Like Romance novels and the traditional Sci-Fi genres, the "quest" fantasy niche has become as predictable, and hackneyed as any of the dime-novel treatments of the last 150 years.
But it wasn't until the appearance of Joanne Rowling's Harry Potter series that the quest fantasy got its first real shot in the arm since Tolkien's arrival 40 years earlier. Authored by a newcomer with no previous publication history, the Potter series draws on a predictable set of clichéd children's literature tropes, combined with stock elements of fantasy and Medieval epic, and an English public school setting. The combination proved to be irresistible to the "juvenile" reading audience. Critics, who may have assumed that the "decline" in reading attributed to the television--and, later, computers--wouldn't permit such a phenomenon, were pleasantly surprised. Children were reading! Reading! Reading!! Did it matter what they were reading, as long as it wasn't Gothic punk porn???
Someone, maybe Edmund Wilson, who abhorred the Hobbit phenomenon, said that Tolkien's books were "too old for children, and too young for adults." That's a judgment I would second.
Children's books are a difficult genre. When children are first learning to read, almost any plotting or visual device can be effective in capturing their attention, in order to channel their minds into the language stream. Pop-up books are useful.
The fact is that children's minds grow so fast, that so-called "juvenile" literature, which is a form of deliberate condescension which quickly becomes irrelevant to a growing consciousness, can't "keep up with them." What this means in practical terms is that any child intelligent enough to read coherent sentences, and the patience to stick with a narrative lasting more than, say, 25 pages, overtakes and outdistances all pathetic attempts to mediate between the realization of adult comprehension, and the fake cartoon world of naive story-lines and irrational "dumb" behavior which is nearly their whole agenda.
Any child intelligent enough to read Beatrice Potter, or E.B. White, or J.K. Rowling, is already too mature to appreciate the condescension which is being perpetrated upon them, and what they perceive is that this condescension creates a predicament for which there is no solution: Namely, that they have entered a kind of twilight zone of "adolescence" in which they are to regard themselves, and their immature "society" as a restricted condition, bogusly "innocent," harmlessly sweet, powerless and oppressed. Someone once said that children are just "little adults" and this is no more true than for intelligent children who become effectively adolescent as early as age 7 or 8. For such children, the protected "play" of "secret," "cozy" fantasy provides a testing ground for their own vicarious aptitudes.
A child intelligent enough to comprehend the nonsense world of Joanne Rowling or J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, is already old enough for adult literature. The best children's literature is that which can be read and appreciated by adults, as if it were written for them, instead of as a form of condescension and contempt for innocence and immaturity. Fables and fairy tales "aimed" at children are almost always failures. The trick is in creating a structure of relationships and events which have the logic of forceful narrative, and direct description and dialogue, without proposing a fake universe in which children may postpone growing up in favor of a complex game of avoidance and illusion.
Those of us who couldn't wait to graduate out of the confinements of prolonged childhood pastimes, saw no attraction in such elaborate fantasies, aimed at "young adolescents." The cult frenzy practiced by obsessive late-blooming adults, focused on "magical" mazes of plot and gamesmanship, held no attraction. Charming old Oxford dons cooking up fascinating fruit-cake tales of elves, stuffed animals and supernatural wands and rings, as a diversion from the drudgery of academic research into Middle English codices and tending to graduates....
Thank god I got out of childhood without being seduced by any of this poppycoddle. I went straight from The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come into the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts; and from there to Dickens and Camus and T.S. Eliot and Frost and Irwin Shaw and John Cheever. I never read Tolkien and Rowling, and I never shall. Lucky me!
I find the discussion at this point to be hung up on an issue that is really not the subject of this post (literary landmarks which I, yours truly, have scratched off my list of vital, essential "classics" of world literature). I find that my preference regarding so-called "juvenile" literature has much more complex roots than simple taste. I'm not saying that Tolkien or Rowling are unworthy, as much as I'm rejecting a whole segment of contemporary literary form. Why?
I think the answer comes from a view of childhood psychology--or, rather, contemporary attitudes about the meaning of "childhood" as a psychological precinct of existence, self-sufficient, timeless--which feeds off of imaginary childhood "cosmologies"--fake worlds which are constructed, like movie sets, out of the fragments of myth, familiar real places and situations, and fictionalized hybrid settings borrowed or stolen from straight literature (or other media). Children's literature functions primarily by putting before the immature mind a simplified set of conditions, within which two-dimensional characters move with freedom and ease. The world--the world we know as "adults"--is complete, and in its own way, quite difficult and mysterious and challenging. The idea that we should require an analogous cosmology or "inferior" parallel world (version) comes from the notion that children inhabit a different world from that of adults, that they either need an intermediate universe to live in (psychologically) or that the real world is too dangerous or too boring to (safely) gratify the curiosity and inquisitiveness of the childhood mind. I find this idea wrong.
A superior example of true successful children's literature would be Stuart Little  E.B. White's "charming" fable of a mouse growing up in a human household, as if he were a sort of surrogate human hybrid offspring. The narrative balances the improbability of this bizarre variation of the growing up story, against the inspiring spirit of the mouse (Stuart), who in most respects is like a very precocious and dignified and courageous young man (or boy). There is no attempt to create a wholly worked out fantasy universe with magical qualities and mythical beings with supernatural powers. The world Stuart lives in bears a close resemblance to the world we all inhabit, and the challenges he faces are partly the result of his strange identity, and partly the result of the real problems every child faces in growing up.
Children who require such "alternative" universes seem to me to have an involuted consciousness. Tolkien's fascination with medieval trappings and complexities obviously grew out of his work in Middle English literature and philology. He fantasized wholly self-sufficient medieval societies and landscapes, even going so far as to provide maps and paintings and secondary texts to elaborate the central stories. This is rather like very sophisticated model building, or miniature train set building.
Children who require an "inner world" of this degree of complexity and density probably have a kind of deprived imaginative life in other ways, or are rejecting the real world they occupy, or are not furnished with an adequately interesting intellectual life devoted to, or derived from, actual events and situations. Children's fantasy literature--especially this hybrid quest fantasy stuff--can become a kind of addiction, accompanied by a cozy cult-like feeling of exclusivity, shared by the like-minded, and worn as a badge of precocious selection by children too insecure to participate fully in the world as it is. Such little cult-fans may perpetuate their interest well into adolescence and beyond, preferring the imaginary world (in all its elaborateness and detail) to reality. Rather than "outgrowing" it, they tend to cling to it, as if it might continue to occupy a place equal to adult literature. It has, of course, many of the same aspects of classic literature: It's set in a pre-industrial, pre-scientific cosmos which only "works" for children. This suspended state of childhood thus permits such readers to experience many of the aspects of straight narrative, without having to confront the irony of their own immature regard.
For those who prefer this kind of elaborate immaturity, juvenile medieval quest narratives furnish the perfect escape. They can return to or recreate a sense of childhood, without confronting the basic naivité the genre implies. Adults reading this stuff is almost as bad as children reading it. The level of condescension is as bad as their appetite for schlock. It's all so cute and cuddly and rounded and snug.