Saturday, December 4

React Children And Iteration Methods

The most obvious and common prop that developers work with within React is the children prop. In the majority of cases, there is no need to understand how the children prop looks like. But in some cases, we want to inspect the children prop to maybe wrap each child in another element/component or to reorder or slice them. In those cases inspecting how the children prop looks like becomes essential.

In this article, we’ll look at a React utility React.Children.toArray which lets us prepare the children prop for inspection and iteration, some of its shortcomings and how to overcome them — through a small open-source package, to keep our React code function the way it is deterministically supposed to behave, keeping performance intact. If you know the basics of React and have at least an idea about what the children prop in React is, this article is for you.

While working with React, most of the time we do not touch the children prop any more than using it in React components directly.

function Parent({ children }) {
  return <div className="mt-10">{children}</div>;
}

But sometimes we have to iterate over the children prop so that we can enhance or change the children without having the user of the components explicitly do it themselves. One common use case is to pass the iteration index-related information to child components of a parent like so:

import { Children, cloneElement } from "react";

function Breadcrumbs({ children }) {
  const arrayChildren = Children.toArray(children);

  return (
    <ul
      style={{
        listStyle: "none",
        display: "flex",
      }}
    >
      {Children.map(arrayChildren, (child, index) => {
        const isLast = index === arrayChildren.length - 1;

        if (! isLast && ! child.props.link ) {
          throw new Error(
            `BreadcrumbItem child no. ${index + 1}
            should be passed a 'link' prop`
          )
        } 

        return (
          <>
            {child.props.link ? (
              <a
                href={child.props.link}
                style={{
                  display: "inline-block",
                  textDecoration: "none",
                }}
              >
                <div style={{ marginRight: "5px" }}>
                  {cloneElement(child, {
                    isLast,
                  })}
                </div>
              </a>
            ) : (
              <div style={{ marginRight: "5px" }}>
                {cloneElement(child, {
                  isLast,
                })}
              </div>
            )}
            {!isLast && (
              <div style={{ marginRight: "5px" }}>
                >
              </div>
            )}
          </>
        );
      })}
    </ul>
  );
}

function BreadcrumbItem({ isLast, children }) {
  return (
    <li
      style={{
        color: isLast ? "black" : "blue",
      }}
    >
      {children}
    </li>
  );
}

export default function App() {
  return (
    <Breadcrumbs>
      <BreadcrumbItem
        link="https://goibibo.com/"
      >
        Goibibo
      </BreadcrumbItem>

      <BreadcrumbItem
        link="https://goibibo.com/hotels/"
      >
        Hotels
      </BreadcrumbItem>

      <BreadcrumbItem>
       A Fancy Hotel Name
      </BreadcrumbItem>
    </Breadcrumbs>
  );
}

Here we’re doing the following:

  1. We are using the React.Children.toArray method to ensure that the children prop is always an array. If we do not do that, doing children.length might blow because the children prop can be an object, an array, or even a function. Also, if we try to use the array .map method on children directly it might blow up.
  2. In the parent Breadcrumbs component we are iterating over its children by using the utility method React.Children.map.
  3. Because we have access to index inside the iterator function (second argument of callback function of React.Children.map) we are able to detect if the child is last-child or not.
  4. If it is the last child we clone the element and pass in the isLast prop to it so that the child can style itself based on it.
  5. If it is not the last child, we ensure that all those children which aren’t the last child have a link prop on them by throwing an error if they don’t. We clone the element as we did in step 4. and pass the isLast prop as we did before, but we also additionally wrap this cloned element in an anchor tag.

The user of Breadcrumbs and BreadcrumbItem doesn’t have to worry about which children should have links and how they should be styled. Inside the Breadcrumbs component, it automatically gets handled.

This pattern of implicitly passing in props and/or having state in the parent and passing the state and state changers down to the children as props is called the compound component pattern. You might be familiar with this pattern from React Router’s Switch component, which takes Route components as its children:

// example from react router docs
// https://reactrouter.com/web/api/Switch

import { Route, Switch } from "react-router";

let routes = (
  <Switch>
    <Route exact path="/">
      <Home />
    </Route>
    <Route path="/about">
      <About />
    </Route>
    <Route path="/:user">
      <User />
    </Route>
    <Route>
      <NoMatch />
    </Route>
  </Switch>
);

Now that we have established that there are needs where we have to iterate over children prop sometimes, and having used two of the children utility methods React.Children.map and React.Children.toArray, let’s refresh our memory about one of them: React.Children.toArray.

React.Children.toArray

Let’s start by seeing with an example what this method does and where it might be useful.

import { Children } from 'react'

function Debugger({children}) {
  // let’s log some things
  console.log(children);
  console.log(
    Children.toArray(children)
  )
  return children;
}

const fruits = [
  {name: "apple", id: 1},
  {name: "orange", id: 2},
  {name: "mango", id: 3}
]

export default function App() {
  return (
    <Debugger>
        <a
          href="https://css-tricks.com/"
          style={{padding: '0 10px'}}
        >
          CSS Tricks
        </a>

        <a
          href="https://smashingmagazine.com/"
          style={{padding: '0 10px'}}
        >
          Smashing Magazine
        </a>

        {
          fruits.map(fruit => {
            return (
              <div key={fruit.id} style={{margin: '10px'}}>
                {fruit.name}
              </div>
            )
          })
        }
    </Debugger>
  )
}

We have a Debugger component, which does nothing much in terms of rendering — it just returns children as is. But it does log two values: children and React.Children.toArray(children).

If you open up the console, you’d be able to see the difference.

  • The first statement which logs children prop, shows the following as its value’s data structure:
[
  Object1, ----> first anchor tag
  Object2, ----> second anchor tag
  [
    Object3, ----> first fruit
    Object4, ----> second fruit
    Object5] ----> third fruit
  ]
]
  • The second statement which logs React.Children.toArray(children) logs:
[
  Object1, ----> first anchor tag
  Object2, ----> second anchor tag
  Object3, ----> first fruit
  Object4, ----> second fruit
  Object5, ----> third fruit
]

Let’s read the method’s documentation in React docs to make sense of what is happening.

React.Children.toArray returns the children opaque data structure as a flat array with keys assigned to each child. Useful if you want to manipulate collections of children in your render methods, especially if you want to reorder or slice children before passing it down.

Let’s break that down:

  1. Returns the children opaque data structure as a flat array.
  2. With keys assigned to each child.

The first point says that that children (which is an opaque data structure, meaning it can be an object, array, or a function, as described earlier) is converted to a flat array. Just like we saw in the example above. Additionally, this GitHub issue comment also explains its behavior:

It (React.Children.toArray) does not pull children out of elements and flatten them, that wouldn’t really make any sense. It flattens nested arrays and objects, i.e. so that [['a', 'b'],['c', ['d']]] becomes something similar to ['a', 'b', 'c', 'd'].

React.Children.toArray(
  [
    ["a", "b"],
    ["c", ["d"]]
  ]
).length === 4;

Let’s see what the second point (‘With keys assigned to each child.’) says, by expanding one child each from the previous logs of the example.

Expanded Child From console.log(children)

{
  $typeof: Symbol(react.element),
  key: null,
  props: {
    href: "https://smashingmagazine.com",
    children: "Smashing Magazine",
    style: {padding: "0 10px"}
  },
  ref: null,
  type: "a",
  // … other properties
}

Expanded Child From console.log(React.Children.toArray(children))

{
  $typeof: Symbol(react.element),
  key: ".0",
  props: {
    href: "https://smashingmagazine.com",
    children: "Smashing Magazine",
    style: {padding: "0 10px"}
  },
  ref: null,
  type: "a",
  // … other properties
}

As you can see, besides flattening the children prop into a flat array, it also adds unique keys to each of its children. From the React docs:

React.Children.toArray() changes keys to preserve the semantics of nested arrays when flattening lists of children. That is, toArray prefixes each key in the returned array so that each element’s key is scoped to the input array containing it.

Because the .toArray method might change the order and place of children, it has to make sure that it maintains unique keys for each of them for reconciliation and rendering optimization.

Let’s give a little bit more attention to so that each element’s key is scoped to the input array containing it., by looking at the keys of each element of the second array (corresponding to console.log(React.Children.toArray(children))).

import { Children } from 'react'

function Debugger({children}) {
  // let’s log some things
  console.log(children);
  console.log(
    Children.map(Children.toArray(children), child => {
      return child.key
    }).join('n')
  )
  return children;
}

const fruits = [
  {name: "apple", id: 1},
  {name: "orange", id: 2},
  {name: "mango", id: 3}
]

export default function App() {
  return (
    <Debugger>
        <a
          href="https://css-tricks.com/"
          style={{padding: '0 10px'}}
        >
          CSS Tricks
        </a>
        <a
          href="https://smashingmagazine.com/"
          style={{padding: '0 10px'}}
        >
          Smashing Magazine
        </a>
        {
          fruits.map(fruit => {
            return (
              <div key={fruit.id} style={{margin: '10px'}}>
                {fruit.name}
              </div>
            )
          })
        }
    </Debugger>
  )
}
.0  ----> first link
.1  ----> second link
.2:0 ----> first fruit
.2:1 ----> second fruit
.2:2 ----> third fruit

As you can see that the fruits, which were originally a nested array inside the original children array, have keys that are prefixed with .2. The .2 corresponds to the fact that they were a part of an array. The suffix, namely :0 ,:1, :2 are corresponding to the React elements’ (fruits) default keys. By default, React uses the index as the key, if no key is specified for the elements of a list.

So suppose you had three level of nesting inside children array, like so:

import { Children } from 'react'

function Debugger({children}) {
  const retVal = Children.toArray(children)
  console.log(
    Children.map(retVal, child => {
      return child.key
    }).join('n')
  )
  return retVal
}

export default function App() {
  const arrayOfReactElements = [
    <div key="1">First</div>,
    [
      <div key="2">Second</div>,
      [
        <div key="3">Third</div>
      ]
    ]
  ];
  return (
    <Debugger>
      {arrayOfReactElements}
    </Debugger>
  )
}

The keys will look like

.$1
.1:$2
.1:1:$3

The $1, $2, $3 suffixes are because of the original keys put on the React elements in an array, otherwise React complains of lack of keys ? .

From whatever we’ve read so far we can come to two use cases for React.Children.toArray.

  1. If there’s an absolute need that children should always be an array, you can use React.Children.toArray(children) instead. It’ll work perfectly even when children is an object or a function too.
  2. If you have to sort, filter, or slice children prop you can rely on React.Children.toArray to always preserve unique keys of all the children.

There’s a problem with React.Children.toArray ?. Let’s look at this piece of code to understand what the problem is:

import { Children } from 'react'

function List({children}) {
  return (
    <ul>
      {
        Children.toArray(
          children
        ).map((child, index) => {
          return (
            <li
              key={child.key}
            >
              {child}
            </li>
          )
        })
      }
    </ul>
  )
}

export default function App() {
  return (
    <List>
      <a
        href="https://css-tricks.com"
        style={{padding: '0 10px'}}
      >
        Google
      </a>
      <>
        <a
          href="https://smashingmagazine.com"
          style={{padding: '0 10px'}}
        >
          Smashing Magazine
        </a>
        <a
          href="https://arihantverma.com"
          style={{padding: '0 10px'}}
        >
          {"Arihant’s Website"}
        </a>
      </>
    </List>
  )
}

If you see what gets rendered for the children of the fragment, you’ll see that both of the links get rendered inside one li tag! ?

This is because React.Children.toArray doesn’t traverse into fragments. So what can we do about it? Fortunately, nothing ? . We already have an open-sourced package called react-keyed-flatten-children. It’s a small function that does its magic.

Let’s see what it does. In pseudo-code (these points are linked in the actual code below), it does this:

  1. It is a function that takes children as its only necessary argument.
  2. Iterates over React.Children.toArray(children) and gathers children in an accumulator array.
  3. While iterating, if a child node is a string or a number, it pushes the value as is in the accumulator array.
  4. If the child node is a valid React element, it clones it, gives it the appropriate key, and pushes it to the accumulator array.
  5. If the child node is a fragment, then the function calls itself with fragment’s children as its argument (this is how it traverses through a fragment) and pushes the result of calling itself in the accumulator array.
  6. While doing all this it keeps the track of the depth of traversal (of fragments), so that the children inside fragments would have correct keys, the same way as keys work with nested arrays, as we saw earlier above.
import {
  Children,
  isValidElement,
  cloneElement
} from "react";

import { isFragment } from "react-is";

import type {
  ReactNode,
  ReactChild,
} from 'react'

/*************** 1. ***************/
export default function flattenChildren(
  // only needed argument
  children: ReactNode,
  // only used for debugging
  depth: number = 0,
  // is not required, start with default = []
  keys: (string | number)[] = [] 
): ReactChild[] {
  /*************** 2. ***************/
  return Children.toArray(children).reduce(
    (acc: ReactChild[], node, nodeIndex) => {
      if (isFragment(node)) {
        /*************** 5. ***************/
        acc.push.apply(
          acc,
          flattenChildren(
            node.props.children,
            depth + 1,
            /*************** 6. ***************/
            keys.concat(node.key || nodeIndex)
          )
        );
      } else {
        /*************** 4. ***************/
        if (isValidElement(node)) {
          acc.push(
            cloneElement(node, {
              /*************** 6. ***************/
              key: keys.concat(String(node.key)).join('.')
            })
          );
        } else if (
          /*************** 3. ***************/
          typeof node === "string"
          || typeof node === "number"
        ) {
          acc.push(node);
        }
      }
      return acc; 
    },
    /*************** Acculumator Array ***************/
    []
  );
}

Let’s retry our previous example to use this function and see for ourselves that it fixes our problem.

import flattenChildren from 'react-keyed-flatten-children'
import { Fragment } from 'react'

function List({children}) {
  return (
    <ul>
      {
        flattenChildren(
          children
        ).map((child, index) => {
          return <li key={child.key}>{child}</li>
        })
      }
    </ul>
  )
}
export default function App() {
  return (
    <List>
      <a
        href="https://css-tricks.com"
        style={{padding: '0 10px'}}
      >
        Google
      </a>
      <Fragment>
        <a
          href="https://smashingmagazine.com"
          style={{padding: '0 10px'}}>
          Smashing Magazine
        </a>

        <a
          href="https://arihantverma.com"
          style={{padding: '0 10px'}}
        >
          {"Arihant’s Website"}
        </a>
      </Fragment>
    </List>
  )
}

Woooheeee! It works.

As an add-on, if you are new to testing — like I am at the point of this writing — you might be interested in 7 tests written for this utility function. It’ll be fun to read the tests to deduce the functionality of the function.

The Long Term Problem With Children Utilities

React.Children is a leaky abstraction, and is in maintenance mode.”

Dan Abramov

The problem with using Children methods to change children behavior is that they only work for one level of nesting of components. If we wrap one of our children in another component, we lose composability. Let’s see what I mean by that, by picking up the first example that we saw — the breadcrumbs.

import { Children, cloneElement } from "react";

function Breadcrumbs({ children }) {
  return (
    <ul
      style={{
        listStyle: "none",
        display: "flex",
      }}
    >
      {Children.map(children, (child, index) => {
        const isLast = index === children.length - 1;
        // if (! isLast && ! child.props.link ) {
        //   throw new Error(`
        //     BreadcrumbItem child no.
        //     ${index + 1} should be passed a 'link' prop`
        //   )
        // } 
        return (
          <>
            {child.props.link ? (
              <a
                href={child.props.link}
                style={{
                  display: "inline-block",
                  textDecoration: "none",
                }}
              >
                <div style={{ marginRight: "5px" }}>
                  {cloneElement(child, {
                    isLast,
                  })}
                </div>
              </a>
            ) : (
              <div style={{ marginRight: "5px" }}>
                {cloneElement(child, {
                  isLast,
                })}
              </div>
            )}
            {!isLast && (
              <div style={{ marginRight: "5px" }}>></div>
            )}
          </>
        );
      })}
    </ul>
  );
}

function BreadcrumbItem({ isLast, children }) {
  return (
    <li
      style={{
        color: isLast ? "black" : "blue",
      }}
    >
      {children}
    </li>
  );

}
const BreadcrumbItemCreator = () =>
  <BreadcrumbItem
    link="https://smashingmagazine.com"
  >
    Smashing Magazine
  </BreadcrumbItem>

export default function App() {
  return (
    <Breadcrumbs>
      <BreadcrumbItem
        link="https://goibibo.com/"
      >
        Goibibo
      </BreadcrumbItem>

      <BreadcrumbItem
        link="https://goibibo.com/hotels/"
      >
        Goibibo Hotels
      </BreadcrumbItem>

      <BreadcrumbItemCreator />

      <BreadcrumbItem>
        A Fancy Hotel Name
      </BreadcrumbItem>
    </Breadcrumbs>
  );
}

Although our new component <BreadcrumbItemCreator /> rendered, our Breadcrumb component doesn’t have any way to extract out the link prop from it, because of which, it doesn’t render as link.

To fix this problem React team had come with — now defunct — experimental API called react-call-return.

Ryan Florence’s Video explains this problem in detail, and how react-call-return fixed it. Since the package was never published in any version of React, there are plans to take inspiration from it and make something production-ready.

Conclusion

To conclude, we learned about:

  1. The React.Children utility methods. We saw two of them: React.Children.map to see how to use it to make compound components, and React.Children.toArray in depth.
  2. We saw how React.Children.toArray converts opaque children prop — which could be either object, array or function — into a flat array, so that one could operate over it in required manner — sort, filter, splice, etc…
  3. We learned that React.Children.toArray doesn’t traverse through React Fragments.
  4. We learned about an open-source package called react-keyed-flatten-children and understood how it solves the problem.
  5. We saw that Children utilities are in maintenance mode because they do not compose well.

You might also be interested in reading how to use other Children methods to do everything you can do with children in Max Stoiber’s blog post React Children Deep Dive.

Resources

Source: Smashingmagazine.com

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