He has been called a magician of children's literature, an artist whose work has revolutionized the way we think about childhood.

Now Maurice Sendak, who after the 1963 publication of "Where the Wild Things Are" became the best-known illustrator of children's books in America, has produced his first original book in more than a decade - a fable some reviewers are calling his latest masterpiece and others the most controversial work of his 40-year career.A dense, rich allegory of homelessness in America, "We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy" is the story of a community of children who live in cardboard boxes in the shadow of enormous wealth.

Armed with little more than their own wit and tenacity, aided only by the moon, they fight a passel of bridge-playing rats to rescue a stolen baby and a litter of kittens and take them home to the dump to live happily ever after.

Some reviewers have questioned the book's suitability for children, despite the happy ending, but Sendak says he has lost patience with adult attempts to protect children from the darker aspects of existence.

"That question was first shoved at me in the 1960s when `Wild Things' was published. I was accused of frightening children," said the 65-year-old artist over the telephone from his home in Connecticut. "Back then it was harder to convince people that little kids might get mad at Mommy, that they might have something in common with animals.

"But to say that `Dumps' is still frightening in the '90s, when every day like hammer blows we are hearing about children being shot on their way home from school, about children with AIDS, babies born with AIDS, how can we say this is frightening? I think the most incredible crime we can commit against children is not teaching them to survive."

The text links two obscure Mother Goose rhymes Sendak says he has always loved. The first:

We are all in the dumps

For diamonds are trumps

The kittens are gone to St. Paul's!

The baby is bit

The moon's in a fit

And the houses are built

Without walls.

The second runs:

Jack and Guy

Went out in the rye

And they found a little boy

With one black eye

Come says Jack Let's knock him

On the head

No says Guy

Let's buy him some bread

You buy one loaf

And I'll buy two

And we'll bring him up

As other folk do.

The characters, he says, "are the same kids who've always inhabited my head," except for a new brown-skinned baby, the "little boy with one black eye" who wants to be adopted by Jack and Guy. The boy may have evolved from watching scenes over the years from Somalia and South Africa, he said."The book is all about that baby. It's so durable. It looks helpless and hopeless and wan, but it's sort of like a weed; it just stays there. When it grabs Jack's face, I love it. It's so tenacious for life. All babies are."

Many readers have noticed that the scene in which Jack lifts the child down from the moon bears an uncanny resemblance to Christ being tenderly lifted from the cross in the Pieta, and Sendak has remarked that the moon bears more than a passing resemblance to his mother.

Sendak said that as he drew the scene, he was remembering rare drives as a child with the only member of the family who could afford a car. The drives made him sleepy.

"So the memory is always of coming back to the house still desperately fighting sleep and my father lifting me out of the car, and that's what I was thinking of when I drew Jack lifting the baby off the moon."

The scene is deeply touching in its tenderness, as touching as the final words of the verse, "and we'll bring him up/as other folk do."

"Most children's books in this country are meant to teach children about life," said Sendak, "which is humiliating to children who know without being taught that the object of life is survival.

"Those last words can mean so many things. That they'll bring him up as the world brings up its children, that they'll manage the way other poor folk do. This is surely a dysfunctional family, a deprived family. But, as any child knows, if you don't have a family at all, just about any family will do."