THE ORIGINAL PETER RABBIT BOOKS By Beatrix Potter Frederick Warne. $4.95 each; paperback, $2.95 each

WHAT CHILD growing up in Great Britain or the United States in the last 85 years never heard of The Tale of Peter Rabbit? Unfortunately what he saw may not have been Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit. On its initial publication in London in 1902, the little book was pirated in America (the first carried pictures redrawn by John R. Neill, the illustrator of the Oz Books), and now that the entire series is entering the public domain, the steady stream of unauthorized editions has become a flood.

Potter was fussy. Not only did she both write and illustrate all 23 Peter Rabbit Books herself, she also carefully oversaw every detail of their production. But today her format, size, and design have been largely disregarded in the imitations. The worst indignity to her legacy, however, has been the reillustrating of her stories by the late Allen Atkinson and many others, an act as pointless as commissioning Marvin Hamlisch to rescore Gilbert and Sullivan. To combat this problem, Frederick Warne, Potter's original publisher, has spent several years in reprinting the entire series with new plates from Potter's original watercolors.

Reviewing these new editions is like discovering Beatrix Potter for the first time. As Scribner's recent reissues of N.C. Wyeth's classics have already demonstrated, printing technology has vastly improved since these books were first issued. As comparison between the first and latest editions proves, Potter did not blot her washes but meticulously painted her illustrations. Her palette was cleaner, brighter than anything indicated by the earlier plates. Also her art has gained in strength and clarity by being reproduced somewhat larger than in previous printings. Warne has taken its time, pulling as many as five proofs for The Tale of Peter Rabbit alone. Perhaps the principal reason for the improved printing quality is due to converting from the old three-color to the four-color process; the addition of a black plate reveals a precision to her line unapparent in the pictures of the rare first editions. Potter often reworked her originals, strengthening the color and drawing and sometimes going so far as to make duplicate designs varying in small details from the published versions. All of these changes are now incorporated into these, the definitive Peter Rabbit Books.

Potter was hard on herself. She once sniffed that there were only five books in the entire series that she really cared for. Nevertheless it is a pleasure to reread all her works in these handsome new editions. What is most striking about the writing is how well-read Potter was. The Tailor of Gloucester is a British variant of "The Shoemaker and the Elves," The Tale of Johnny Town-House a sly retelling of the Aesop fable of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse: The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck suggests both "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Bluebeard." Potter also self-consciously aligns her children's tales to other nursery lore; for example, the spider in The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse is looking for Little Miss Muffet, and Little Pig Robinson is the very pig with a ring at the end of his nose encountered by Edward Lear's Owl and Pussy Cat. (Some sources are more obscure, such as Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca of The Tale of Two Bad Mice taking their names from Henry Fielding's 1730 burlesque Tom Thumb.) Yet, while drawing on others' writings, Potter created her own self-contained world, depending on her vast cast of distinctive characters from book to book.

The individual volumes do vary in quality (Appley Dappley's Nursery Rhymes and Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes are poor patchwork), but the best are unlike anything else in juvenile literature. As books for babes, they are refreshingly unsentimental and rarely coy. Most of her heroes and heroines are downright naughty, but their mischief arises from their animal instincts rather than from flaws in human character demanding to be corrected. It is only natural that Peter Rabbit invade Mr. MacGregor's garden, that the two bad mice disrupt the dollhouse, that Tom Kitten and his sisters discard their uncomfortable clothes. Potter's honesty is not always pleasant. She heartlessly describes how Peter Rabbit's father was put into a pie by Mrs. MacGregor; silly Jemima Puddle-Duck fails to realize that the abundant down in the fox's lair came from her deceased sisters, and later the duck's eggs are gobbled up by her saviors, two fox-hound puppies; Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny discover in the home of Mr. Tod, the fox, "many unpleasant things lying about, that had much better have been buried; rabbit bones and skulls, and chickens' legs and other horrors." Potter was too keen an observer of Nature to deny the disturbing laws of the field and forest in her own animal stories.

To mark the publication of these new editions, Warne has also issued two pretty volumes on Potter's life and work by Judy Taylor, a former children's book editor and a prominent member of the Beatrix Potter Society. Both display their author's abundant affection for her subject. However, while much new information (particularly on the countrywoman) as well as a wealth of rare photographs and other pictures drawn from various rich sources either ignored by or unknown to previous researchers appears in the new biography, Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman (Warne, $24.95) does not dislodge the vivid portrait offered by Margaret Lane in The Tale of Beatrix Potter and The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter. Much the same material is covered in That Naughty Rabbit: Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit (Warne, $15.95). At first glance, this second book might seem of interest solely to the specialist, but it proves to be a fascinating succinct survey of the unusual relationship between the author and her publisher. Taylor now promises a long-awaited collection of Potter's letters, but perhaps what is most immediately needed is a thorough (and unbiased) critical appraisal of Potter's extraordinary achievement as both a writer and an illustrator of children's books.

Michael Patrick Hearn is the author of "The Porcelain Cat," illustrated by Diane and Leo Dillon. He is at work on a biography of L. Frank Baum.