Troubled twelve-year-old Maggie Turner has been thrown out of more boarding schools and foster homes than she can remember—and for good reason: she steals and destroys other people's property; she skips class to play in the garden or rummage through other people's rooms; she never pays attention to anyone, lost in her own strange thoughts; she's ugly and skinny, she sucks her hair, and she wears her own ragged ill-fitting clothes rather than the uniforms provided. Underneath it all, Maggie has been alone so long that she's come to believe she prefers it, and she refused to risk being hurt by letting another person into her own interior world.
Adelphi Hills is Maggie's last chance. There she lives with her only living relatives, two stern great-aunts and a dreamy, childlike uncle. There she wanders the empty halls and abandoned classrooms of what was once a girls' school, until a tragic accident 100 years ago killed the school's founders. And there she hears mysterious voices calling her name from a secret room behind the attic wall.
What she discovers there seems like a pair of ordinary forgotten dolls—but these dolls can walk and talk. For the dolls, it is eternally 8:35 on a Wednesday, just before teatime. To them, Maggie is their new caretaker, come to tend their paper rose garden and pour their imaginary tea. But to Maggie, the dolls will soon become the most important things in her world...and they will teach her the most important lesson of her life.
- Alpha Bitch: Maggie imagines her new classmate Randi will become this.
- Ambiguously Absent Parent: The only way we know that Maggie's parents are dead is because she's referred to as an orphan. We never learn how her parents died or how old she was when it happened.
- Beauty Equals Goodness: Deconstructed. The girls in Maggie's new school are all beautiful, and all of them hate her (largely because she stole from them on her first day of class). Yet as Maggie learns to love and trust again, people note a marked improvement in her physical appearance: she gains weight, her face is rosy, and her hair is no longer lank and oily. By the end, some of the pretty classmates have tentatively struck up friendships, and at least one is genuinely disappointed when Maggie leaves the school.
- Blessed with Suck: While Maggie being "chosen" by Timothy John and Miss Christabel end up improving her emotional life in the long run, it doesn't help her much at the time. Nearly every interaction gets her further and further in trouble with the great-aunts.
- Bittersweet Ending: Maggie never sees the dolls again and loses Uncle Morris, the only relative who seemed to care for her and wasn't only interested in scolding her. But she's adopted by a family who loves her, and is shown having loving interactions with her little sisters.
- The Chosen One: Maggie, to the dolls.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Uncle Morris plays silly word games and takes everything so lightly that even Maggie becomes infuriated with his ability to never answer a straight questions—especially when she suspects he knows more than he's telling her.
- The dolls. This is kind of excusable, since they haven't interacted with anyone in decades and believe it's always the same hour of the same day, forever.
- Creepy Doll: Though they're completely benign, Timothy John and Miss Cristabel can come off this way.
- Coming of Age Story: An extremely unusual one. Outwardly Maggie's behavior doesn't change: when she leaves Adelphi Hills, people see her as the same strange, destructive, slovenly child she was. Inwardly, she'll never be the same.
- Conveniently an Orphan: Subverted. While the story depends on Maggie being orphaned, it pretty realistically depicts the life of an orphaned foster child, particularly in Maggie's emotional baggage.
- Death by Newbery Medal: Uncle Morris. Subverted when Timothy John and Miss Christabel appear to die, but come back on Maggie's last day at Adelphi Hills.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Maggie, who is slowly coaxed out of her solitude by the dolls.
- Exactly Exty Years Ago: Maggie just happens to arrive at Adelphi Hills in the year of the 100th anniversary of the deaths of the school's original founders.
- Follow the Leader: Takes a lot after The Secret Garden, only with talking dolls instead of a magic garden.
- Go to Your Room!: Harriet and Lillian's favorite punishment
- Happily Adopted: Maggie at the end of the story
- Heroes Love Dogs: Timothy John and Miss Christabel's dog Juniper.
- Hidden Depths: Underneath her unkempt appearance and behavioral problems, Maggie has an incredibly rich interior life. She attributes personalities to her playing cards; she pretends she's the caretaker of a group of impoverished children who know nothing of modern life; she wonders if everyone else perceives the world the same way she does (if everyone sees colors the same way she does, for example). A lot of her destructive behavior is revealed to be unintentional—she's so wrapped up in her imaginative games that she doesn't realize how it looks to anyone else.
- If It Tastes Bad, It Must Be Good for You: The great-aunts are health conscious to an uncomfortable degree, even filling the candy dishes with celery hearts and wheat-germ cookies.
- Let the Past Burn: (Rather brilliantly) subverted. Rather than being freed from the past by the fire, Timothy John and Miss Christobel appear to have been trapped there forever, unable to either remember the event or move forward.
- The Magic Goes Away: Or so we think.
- Moral Event Horizon: In-universe, the aunts believe Maggie has crossed this by stealing a china ballerina to give the dolls as a present, cutting up a silk scarf for party decorations and accidentally causing a small fire in that spot behind the attic. And she skipped their party to have the doll party, too!
- Not Good with People: Maggie's learned to act as off-putting as she can in order to reject people before they can reject her.
- Pet the Dog: Harriet and Lillian give Maggie a baby doll to play with in the beginning, then later on treat her more gently after Uncle Morris dies, despite being enraged with her.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: It's briefly hinted that Uncle Morris was "never right since he came back from the war," although he seems to have become a playful Zen Survivor.
- Sour Outside, Sad Inside: Maggie is a sullen brat who's been abandoned and relocated so many times that she's desperately lonely, but too afraid of losing yet another person that she's afraid to reach out.
- Warm Milk Helps You Sleep: Subverted. The milk the aunts give Maggie isn't just warm, it's hot. Maggie is so shocked and disgusted by her first gulp that she swats the glass aside, which of course gets her into still more trouble.