Code and Stuff

A React Starter Guide

by Don on February 27, 2021 underjavascriptprogrammingreact

I’ve been working with React for a few years now, so I thought it’d be interesting to write a quick guide to help people get started with it. I’m going to try to keep this as simple as I can, so we’re not going to get into running a Node.js server or using a bundler like Webpack. We’re just going to be using an npm script as our build tool.

What is React?

React is a Javascript library for building UIs and UI components. It originated at Facebook and has been in development for some years. At the time, it was noteworthy for its use of a Virtual DOM, which keeps a cache of the DOM, compares changes to it, and then only changes the parts that need to be changed. This gives a pretty big performance boost compared to other libraries at the time, but the Virtual DOM is increasingly a feature of other libraries.

React also only provides the view layer - some libraries will provide other features, like dealing with Ajax calls - with React, you have to provide your own implementations and libraries of these features.

How to Start

First, we’re going to need to install Node.js and npm. There are a few different installers for this, depending on your platform, which you can get at the Node.js homepage.

After you install Node.js, you should already have access to npm. You can run the following commands to check the versions of each:

node -v
v14.4.0

npm -v
6.14.5

The Node Package Manater (npm) gives us access to a lot of different JavaScript libraries, which is useful not only for installing and using React, but also a lot of different JavaScript libraries you might want to use while developing your application. Let’s start by initializing the application.

npm init

This will take you through a brief prompt where you enter some information about your project. If there’s anything you don’t have an answer for, just leave it blank.

Now, we’ll install React.

npm install react react-dom

You should now have a package.json file in your folder. This, among other things, specifies the library versions that your application needs. It should be a relatively simple file for now.

Transpiling

Modern JavaScript has improved a lot over older versions, but browsers don’t always support the latest and greatest features, or different browsers will support different features, since they use different JavaScript engines. So to be able to leverage a lot of the new features, we have to use something called a transpiler. This is a step that’s more or less the same as compiling - basically taking something the browser can’t understand and turning it into something that it can understand.

Part of why this is important to us is because it allows us to use the JSX syntax, which we’ll cover a little more later. For now, let’s install Babel, Browserify and Babelify.

npm install --save-dev @babel/core @babel/preset-env @babel/preset-react browserify babelify

While there are a number of tools we can use, such as Webpack or Rollup, for now we’re just going to keep it simple and use the command line interface. In our package.json file, add a scripts section that looks like this:

  "scripts": {
    "build": "browserify -t [ babelify --presets [ @babel/preset-env @babel/preset-react ] ] src/index.js -o lib/bundle.js"
  },

This will let us run the command npm build to actually build our application.

Creating a Component

Let’s first make a src folder. In that src folder, let’s go ahead and make a file called index.js. In our index file, we have to import React and React DOM, like so:

import React from "react";
import ReactDOM from "react-dom";

The simplest way we can make a React application is like this:

ReactDOM.render(
	<div>Hello world!</div>,
	document.getElementById('app')
);

Save this file and try running the npm run build command to build it. It should build successfully and output a file called bundle.js to our lib folder. Go ahead and make an HTML file, like index.html.

<html>
	<body>
		<div id="app"></div>
		<script type="text/javascript" src="lib/bundle.js"></script>
	</body>
</html>

Save this file and go ahead and open it up in a browser. If it worked, you should see a “Hello world!” message.

So what’s it doing?

When we use React, we need to have an entry point for React to render into. For our purposes, we’ve chosen to use a div with the id of “app”. Hence, the first part of our call is what we’re going to render (a simple div containing our Hello world message) and the second part tells React where we’re going to render it.

Adding a new Component

Now that we have this very basic example, we can make it a little more complicated. Let’s make a new component called HelloWorld.js in our src folder.

import React from "react";

function HelloWorld(props) {
	return <div>Hello world component!</div>
}

export default HelloWorld;

This is a component called a stateless functional component. The name is pretty descriptive - it’s just a simple function that has no state (a feature found in classes and hooks). Back in our index.js file, we’ll have to make some changes. First, we need to make sure we import the new component.

import HelloWorld from "./HelloWorld.js";

And then, we replace the div in the code with our new component.

ReactDOM.render(
	<HelloWorld />,
	document.getElementById('app')
);

Go ahead and run npm build and refresh the page. You should now see a slightly different message.

Let’s dig in to what this component is doing.

import React from "react";

We need to import the React library to actually be able to use it. That’s probably self explanatory.

function HelloWorld(props) {

This is a function declaration, just like any other, where we name our component. It receives a props argument. We’ll cover what this does in a moment.

return <div>Hello world component!</div>

This is the actual template we want to render. Though this is simple HTML, React allows us to use something called JSX, which is what you can see in the src.js component where we’ve included the HelloWorld component. We can make more complex components by adding further components here, but you typically need a top level component - so you can’t, for example, have something like this by default:

<div>Div One</div>
<div>Div Two</div>

But you can get around this by enclosing them in an array.

return [<div>Div One</div><div>Div Two</div>]

Finally, we have to export the component to make it available elsewhere.

export default HelloWorld;

Passing Data via Properties

Previously, I mentioned that we use JSX in React (although this is, technically, optional), and this by and large looks like HTML or XML. So, you can add data items the same way you would an HTML element:

<HelloWorld name="Don" />,

If we add this to the index.js file and then return to our HelloWorld component, we can access this information via the props element passed in to our component.

function HelloWorld(props) {
	return <div>Hello, {props.name}!</div>
}

Now if you build this and refresh the page, you should see the name you pass in to the component. (P.S., it doesn’t have to be my name you pass in). But let’s say you want to use an element even more like an HTML element by passing in the contents of the body.

<HelloWorld name="Don">Good morning</HelloWorld>,

And in the HelloWorld component, we can access this by using props.children, which will return the body of the component just as it is.

return <div>{props.children} {props.name}!</div>

Go ahead and build our new bundle and refresh the page. Now you’ll see a nice good morning greeting.

More Advanced Stuff

Using these stateless functional components is good (and recommended if you don’t really need state), but you have more options for creating your components, which you can find in another blog I wrote called React Hooks and Classes.

From here, you’ll probably want to learn more about actually running your application on a server, using a bundler like Webpack or Rollup instead of building with Babelify, and reading more about the ins and outs of working with React by checking out the official React tutorials.

And that’s it for today!


© 2021 Don Walizer Jr