There is a strong misconception about picture books; that they are intended only for children. This is just not true.

Often when a sophisticated book with illustrations wins acclaim, someone will say, "Is that really for children?" And the answer is no, it isn't intended to be!Such is the case with the recent ORPHEUS by Charles Mikolaycak (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992). The story, the themes and certainly the illustrations are meant for adolescent and adult readers. The fact that it is marketed as a "picture book" only perpetuates the idea of picture books only for young children.

"Orpheus" is an allegory, a Greco-Roman myth about a man whose music in lyric and with lyre "was so exquisite that mountains bowed and wild animals ceased their hunting to listen. The sea stopped spraying, and trees bent to better hear his songs."

Orpheus married Eurydice under Hymen's threatening omen, and a short time later, she stepped on a snake and died, leaving her husband to mourn her death. Orpheus journeyed to the Underworld to win her back using his power of song. Eurydice was permitted to leave but only if Orpheus promised not to turn to look at her. But he did and she was swept away from him forever.

Orpheus' grief led to his becoming mute. When friends asked him for a song he could not oblige and, thinking he was haughty, they stoned him, tore him to shreds and threw him into the sea.

It is said that his lyre graces the heavens in the form of a constellation.

Various versions of the Orpheus myth have appeared over the years, and Mikolaycak tells that in memory of this hero, a religious cult was established throughout Southern Italy and in Sicily "whose doctrine was communicated in writings, `Orphics,' attributed to him."

The myth has inspired music, poetry, paintings, sculpture and media presentations. A life-size frieze of Orpheus and Eurydice appears in the National Museum in Naples.

For the lyrics used in "Orpheus," Mikolaycak adapted Lionel Salter's English translation of Monteverdi's 1607 opera, "L'Orfeo."

The illustrations for this picture book are glorious: a title page with a life-size profile and single- and double-page spreads of classical portraits combined with framed fluid drawings completed with colored pencils, watercolor and acrylics. The symbolic white drapery is a stark contrast to the horrific black Hades and the grief of death with blood-red stains. Some readers will object to the artist's use of bare bodies (buttocks and breasts are shown on each page), but the beauty of the human body was highly admired at the time of the Romans and should be viewed without criticism when it is used to illustrate a story of that era, I would think.

Remember this is an adult picture book!

Besides the beauty of the illustrations, `Orpheus" will be a welcome addition to a study of mythology, when listening to versions adapted by Haydn and Stravinsky or in preparation to seeing paintings or reading poetry. Reflecting on the themes of love and perfection, one can almost hear Pope's lines:

But soon, too soon the lover turns his eyes;

Again she falls, again she dies, she dies!

. . . No crime was thine, if 'tis no crime to love.

Marilou Sorensen is an associate professor of education at the University of Utah specializing in children's literature.