ANITA SILVEY laughs out loud when she recalls one of her first impressions of the Soviet Union. ``They kept talking to me about their favorite American [children's] writer - James Fenimore Cooper!'' she says.
Ms. Silvey, who is editor-in-chief of The Horn Book Magazine, a journal on books for children, has just returned from the Soviet Union after delivering a 180-page manuscript of critical essays and excerpts from the finest in American children's literature over the past 50 years. The manuscript, which is now being translated, will appear next year in Detskaya Literatura, the official children's literature journal of the Soviet Union.
The request was a first in publishing history, and one that Silvey and her colleague Ann A. Flowers, editor of ``The Horn Book Guide,'' were thrilled to be a part of. ``To be able to bring them `Charlotte's Web' for the first time, to be able to introduce some of these American books - [it's gratifying to see] some of the best of American culture transmitted, rather than just McDonald's!'' says Silvey.
The comments about Fenimore Cooper are understandable, Silvey says, given that ``the level of information about American children's books has been nonexistent.... Anything prior to the Revolution they knew about, anything after, they didn't.''
The lack of exchange has also meant that little is trickling into American bookstores. ``I knew nothing about what was being published for children in the Soviet Union and I see everything that's translated,'' Silvey says. ``When you have no relations, you have no way to exchange information.''
Silvey hopes to help with a similar education process here in the United States - she brought back several items to show to publishers, and is planning a series of articles for next year's issues of the Horn Book Magazine on some of the artists whose work they saw and a bit of what is going on in Soviet publishing.
One of the greatest problems in that industry, says Silvey, is ``their lack of paper ... and [subsequent] lack of ability to be able to publish. They said that with children's books, they can only fulfill about 15 percent of their orders.'' Outdated equipment is another stumbling block.
``We were stunned by the lack of technology that we were seeing in editorial offices and publishing offices in general,'' Silvey says. ``It is not a country in which technology has made any advancement. I mean we would be in publishing houses and not only would we not see a computer, a typewriter was hard to come by.''
Such problems have a direct effect on the kind of reproduction so essential in picture books.
According to Silvey, ``the quality of the paper is so bad ... and book production by our standards is so low that when you see artists reproduced in children's books you think, `Well, they just can't draw, they have no technical facility.'
``We of course were actually able to go to the studios and see the art,'' she continues. ``There are some spectacular children's book artists there - people whose work, quite frankly, [if] we saw it here they'd be getting Caldecott awards tomorrow. But when you look at that [original] artwork in comparison with the reproduction, it was stunning what's lost.''
As a result Soviet publishers show a growing interest in co-publication. Books would be brought out in both languages (see review of ``Face to Face''), or perhaps with a bilingual text. Picture books would most likely be printed in another country where higher reproduction standards exist.
Another effect of glasnost, from what Silvey observed, is a broadening of the subject matter writers are able to deal with. She visited with a writer in the Ukraine who had just published a book on young Ukrainian and Byelorussian refugees from Nazi concentration camps.
``Because Stalin said anyone who was held by the Germans in a sense collaborated with the enemy,'' Silvey says, ``these children [were] taken and interned in Stalin camps until about 1953.''
Children's magazines, which have huge circulations in the Soviet Union, are another area affected by glasnost. The magazine editors with whom Silvey and Flowers spoke - ``and we met a good many of them,'' Silvey says - were ``terribly excited about what they call `making forgotten writers available to children,''' as well as being able to deal with topics previously considered taboo.
What the future will bring is anybody's guess, says Silvey, who found that some of the artists and writers she spoke with were openly skeptical of glasnost. ``All we know is that we have this window of opportunity now. I think that the nice thing is that we will be seeing more of what they do, and they will be seeing more of what we do, as long as this open window continues.''