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Essential concepts you need to know about React

Paul Ccari
Passionate Javascript Developer | UI & UX Designer Enthusiast
・5 min read

I've been using React for a couple of years now but when I started learning it I didn't pay too much attention to what React does for me, like what React abstracts through its API and why do I need to use JSX to build components, or why do we need Babel and so on. So if you're starting learning React or working with it, you might find this post helpful to know about core concepts.

JavaScript to React

Let's say we don't have any React library out there, we just have vanilla JavaScript and we need to create a simple page that only contains the text "I'm learning React Fundamentals" in a div DOM node into the div with id root created.

<html>
  <body>
    <div id="root"></div>
  </body>
</html>
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Steps:

  1. Create the div HTML element using document.createElement where we can pass as argument the div as a tagName
  2. Add the text "I'm learning React Fundamentals". We can use textContent for it.
  3. Insert that created element into the document using Append
<html>
  <body>
    <div id="root"></div>
        <script type="module">
          const rootElement = document.getElementById("root")
          const element = document.createElement("div")
            element.textContent = "I'm learning React Fundamentals"
          rootElement.append(element)
        </script>
  </body>
</html>
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So we'll get :

<html>
  <body>
    <div id="root">
            <div>I'm learning React Fundamentals</div>
        </div>
  </body>
</html>
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Behind the scenes, this is what React does to create DOM nodes, in case you want to dig into it you can take a look at the React source code. React abstracts this imperative browser API to give us a more declarative API to work with.

With that explained, we can say that for creating react applications for the web we need:

  • React: Help us to create react elements similar to creating an element in browser with document.createElement
  • React DOM: Help us to render react elements to the DOM similar to append

Using Raw React APIs

Now, let's create the same page we did before with Vanilla JavaScript but using React library. For that, we need to add external scripts so I'm gonna use unpkg which is a cdn for everything on npm, so we can add just the url and we'll load the files for React and React DOM.

Steps:

  1. Create a React element using createElement which receives these params :

    • type : It can be a type of element, can be a string like div, span, etc or a React Component(which is usually a class or a function), or can be a React Fragment type
    • props : An object containing properties
    • [...children] : It can be a string (will be interpreted as text), or reference to other components that will allow us to nest elements. The rest from the third param is going to be the children. Take in mind that, children is a special prop in React
  2. Render React Element to the DOM using ReactDOM.render which receives these params:

    • element : A React element
    • container : DOM node where the element will be inserted into
<body>
  <div id="root"></div>
  <script src="https://unpkg.com/react@17.0.0/umd/react.development.js"></script>
  <script src="https://unpkg.com/react-dom@17.0.0/umd/react-dom.development.js"></script>
  <script type="module">
        const rootElement = document.getElementById('root')
    const element = React.createElement(
            'div',
            { className: "container" },
            "I'm learning React Fundamentals"
        )
    ReactDOM.render(element, rootElement)
  </script>
</body>
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Now, Imagine that we want to render a list of fruit like using raw React API :

<div>
    <p>List of my favorite fruits</p>
    <ul>
      <li>Apple</li>
      <li>Orange</li>
    </ul>
</div>
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That would be like:

const rootElement = document.getElementById('root')
const element = React.createElement('div', null,
  [
    React.createElement('p', null, 'List of my favorite fruits'),
    React.createElement('ul', null, 
            React.createElement('li', null, 'Apple'),
            React.createElement('li', null, 'Orange'),
        ),
  ],
})

ReactDOM.render(element, rootElement)
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Does that look easier to understand to you? It might be but imagine using React in this way in large applications. It can be hard to read and maintain so that's when comes JSX which is a HTML-like syntactic sugar on top of raw React API's.

Using JSX

JSX is not JavaScript which means that the browser will not understand natively so we need to use a code compiler such as Babel that will transform into standard Javascript

You can play around here to see how babel complies JSX to JavaScript

const element = <h1 className="title">I Love React!</h1>

// ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ compiles to ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓

const element = React.createElement(
  "h1",
  {
    className: "title"
  },
  "I Love React!"
);
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As demonstrated, JSX provides us a concise and familiar syntax for defining a tree structure that doesn't require learning a templating language or leaving javascript. Although you need to be aware of JSX Gotchas like:

  • User-Defined Components must be capitalized: When the react element starts with a lowercase letter, it'll take as a built-in component like span, div, h1. So let's say you create a titlepage component
function titlepage({children}) {
  return <h1 className="title">{children}</h1>
}

function App(){
    return(
        <div>
            <titlepage>My first blog!</titlepage>
        </div>
    )
}

// ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ compiles↓ ↓ ↓ ↓

function titlepage(_ref) {
  var children = _ref.children;
  return React.createElement("h1", {
    className: "title"
  }, children);
}

var element = React.createElement("div", 
    null, 
    React.createElement("**titlepage**", null, "Hello World"));

// => ⚠️ titlepage is parsed as a string and doesn't take as a component/function
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Plus, you'll get an error in your console and it'll suggest you name it starting with an uppercase letter

// Error: The tag <titlepage> is unrecognized in this browser. 
// If you meant to render a React component, start its name with an uppercase letter.
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Final Notes

I would encourage you to spend some time with the source code in React, play around with JSX in the online babel REPL to see the compiled version of that code, so you can be better at understanding, reading and using it. Knowing what the abstraction does, will make you more effective to use it.

Here are a few miscellaneous link related that help me to understand behind the scenes of React

Hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

... As always, enjoy your process of learning 🚀

Feel free to reach out if you wanna chat about anything.

Discussion (1)

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bam92 profile image
Abel Lifaefi Mbula

Nice article !

I've learned something although I've written about this before: