ADULTS in an intensely age-aware society like our own often feel uncomfortable about reading children's literature with their own interests in mind. It is as though a stern parent who had once warned, "You're not a child anymore!" stood over them again. A strangely potent fear of regression, or of some such developmental backsliding, takes hold along with a related cultural doubt -- the work of Freud and others notwithstanding -- that childhood fantasies, or fantasy itself, can have much to do with the grownup world and so ought not to be considered by persons over a certain age as a source of amusement let alone of solace or understanding, least of all as art.

The publication of The Art of Maurice Sendak by Selma G. Lanes may therefore come as welcome confirmation, even licence, to many adult admirers of children's literature, representing as it does, in the author's words, "the first major retrospective of the most important children's book illustrator of our time." Although many other volumes on children's book writers and illustrators have appeared in recent years -- Lane's own essay collection Down the Rabbit Hole is among the most intelligent of these studies -- no previous book has received such extravagant care in its design, production and promotion, or is likely to be seen (and perhaps also read) by a larger general audience. If one wish might be stated for this gorgeous, whimsical gallery of a book, it is that it may through the various merits of its illustrations and text contribute at least as much to a thoughtful understanding of Sendak's art as it is apt to add, by the sheet glamorousness and panache of its visual presentation, to the artist's mere celebrity.

As surprising as it may seem to readers used to thinking of all children's books as "make-believe" of one kind or another, Lanes, a longtime children's book reviewer and editor, has shown that Sendak is a psychological realist in art who, in the nearly 80 books he has illustrated and in several cases also written, depicts childhood as the emotionally complex and often difficult stage of life that it is -- a time of fears and doubts as well as innocent horseplay.

Sendak has never idealized his child characters. His stories about their dream-journeys, as brightly comical and adventure-laden as they often are, also confront, as perhaps a young child is not yet equipped to do for himself, the fears of loneliness and love withheld, the pent-up rage children -- and adults -- sometimes feel toward unbending authority, and other equally pessing emotional concerns. Sendak has also celebrated life's basic necessities and simple pleasures -- song, dance, hot soup on cold days, exuberance in language: "We'll eat you up -- we love you so!" as Sendak's preposterous, bug-eyed chorus line of Wild Things say. And from Lanes' sensitive (if at times overly deferential) portrait of Sendak, as from the artist's work itself, one also gains a finer respect for the immense formative potential of childhood's most ordinary-seeming experiences: how, for instance, occasional outings to the city may have enlarged a small child's awareness of the sensuous world; how childhood hours of patient gazing out the window did furnish half a lifetime and more of the artist's poignant material.

Along with the approximately 100 published Sendak illustrations reproduced in this book (many of them in color), Lanes has gathered a selection of the illustrator-writer's rough sketches, excerpts from early and final manuscript drafts and diary notations, in all of which one can observe the artist at work, worrying over the precise weight a certain word lends to the balance of fantasy and reality in a story, reinterpreting a fairy tale's central episode by a rearrangement of a drawing's principal figures. Such peerings-into-the-artist's-mind are intrinsically interesting; they may also help convince skeptics that while a fine children's picture book may appear so utterly simple in its design that "it looks as if you knocked it off in no time," as Sendak has said, that such emphatically is not the case.

Selma Lanes has also noted the influence (mostly stylistic) on Sendak's remarkably varied graphic output, of such diverse artists and illustrators as Randolph Caldecott, Chagall, Durer, the turn-of-the-century American cartoonist Winsor McCay, and many others. Some critics' discomfort with Sendak's voracious eclecticism may itself have delayed his general acceptance outside the children's book field as an artist, as has perhaps the uncritical praise that he, like nearly all creative people with a large popular following, has at times received (such as a review, quoted without attribution or qualification by Lanes, that declared him to be "the Picasso of children's books"). Here, and occasionally elsewhere, the author herself seems needlessly concerned with the artist's celebrity.

More often Lanes' judgments are pertinent and admirably measured. Sendak touched a cultural raw nerve in his picture book In the Night Kitchen when he showed a small boy kfully naked, to the dismay of some librarians and other moral watchdogs; as Lanes shrewdly observes, no such outcry occurred one year earlier when Sendak included a drawing of a naked young girl in another book. Children's books are carriers of deeply rooted cultural values and Sendak, as Lanes demonstrates, has been a radical questioner of these values on behalf of the young. The author's assertion that Sendak's drawings for The Juniper Tree, a Grimms' fairy tale collection, rank among "the few masterly works of book illustration in our time," is among many critical assessments ventured by Lanes that deserve the most serious consideration by art historians and book lovers.

It seems appropriate that Sendak should now be receiving a widening and more thoughtful recognition of his many-headed achievement. He began his career in the early '50s. The first generation of Sendak readers are now fully grown, old enough to have their own reading children. One wonders how many of those original Sendak readers, having learned from the artist that fantasy is a healthy, joyful, lifelong resource for emotional growth and daily living, have never felt the need to put aside his writings and drawings as "childish things." One never, it seems, quite outgrows the best of children's literature: it is by way of reflecting on this curious paradox that The Art of Maurice Sendak is most acutely seen.