As someone who has served on my fair share of award committees (AEWA, Teachers Choices, Children's Choices, Printz, Quick Picks, Morris, Excellence in Nonfiction to name a few), I see the need to recognize literary merit. And I think we have "awards" for popularity and appeal as well. Why the need to focus on literary merit?
If we do not demonstrate that YA has literary merit, it will be even easier to dismiss it as books kids will read that really have no place in the classroom or the canon. It happens anyhow. I read a blog post recently (http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/christine-stock/teenage-books_b_6320308.html) that talks about YA as a way to move kids to the classics. Yes, I get that. I do reading ladders to that effect. But I also think reading YA is an end and not a means to an end.
Recognizing literary excellence might be one step to getting someone to read a book and perhaps offer it to adolescents. I recommend that my grad students in YA read from an assortment of lists including Printz. My colleague Karin Perry and I have composed a course on reading YA critically. It is being offered through YALSA in February. Next week I will put together a one hour webinar on this same topic. Elevating the discussion to focus on literary elements makes educators more aware of the excellence in the field.
In short, I think we need both. We need awards for excellence in literature and awards that are reflective of popularity and appeal. Many state lists offer readers the chance to vote on their favorites as do the IRA/CBC lists. The bestseller list is, I would argue, more about appeal and popularity than literary excellence as well. I think we need both.
Finally, I am making no predictions. I will watch the broadcast from Chicago, note the books I need to order or find in the TBR stack and rejoice that our field is so rich that the work of the committees is arduous. I will celebrate the winning titles, but I will still book talk those books that spoke to me or that I know will speak to other readers as I offer inservice and PD and workshops. I am happy simply to celebrate it all.