Blog Post

Programmatically Formatting Nested HTML Child Elements in React

Problem: Receiving HTML with nested children of an unknown depth and formatting them with CSS classes dynamically.

I've had this problem arise twice. On the first occasion I created a quick brute force solution, and the second time I was able to refactor the solution to be more readable and more powerful.

A little about the projects, they are both in React, one is Create-React-App and the other is Gatsby, but both use Tailwind CSS. The first occasion I was working with QuillJS, an open-source WYSIWYG editor and pretty easy to get used to using. It provides "pure" HTML, so a "Heading 1" will be an <h1>, bold text is provided wrapped in <strong> tags, lists are provided in <ol> and <ul>, etc...

Here's an example of what your might receive from a user typing an input in the QuillJS editor.

  <h1>An Example Heading!</h1>
  <p>Here's some paragraph text that shows you how
  it is to write with QuillJS!</p>
  <p>Here's a list: </p>
      <li>First Item</li>
      <li>Another Item</li>
      <li>A Third Item</li>

Gist of the Code Above

This is straight forward, aside from the <p><br></p>, which is there to add a line break. If your are using CSS to style the elements themselves, you might get away with it. But if you need a more dynamic solution, you'll end up writing a solution like I did.

The Brute Force Solution

The small problem arises with nesting of elements. You end up with elements nesting 3 or more layers deep. I specifically found a problem of a <a> nested 3 child elements deep inside a <ul> > <li>... Not terrible, if you are sure of how the elements will be nested. After some looking I started to see patterns and created this first version.

First I created an object of the classes I wanted to apply to each tag. Reminder: we're using Tailwind CSS utility classes.

const quillStyle = {
  h1: 'text-blue-500 font-bold text-xl',
  h2: 'text-blue-500 font-bold text-lg',
  h3: 'text-blue-500 font-bold text-md',
  a: 'text-teal-600 font-bold',
  p: 'text-blue-300',
  ol: 'list-decimal list-inside',
  ul: 'list-disc list-inside',
  li: 'pl-2 text-blue-300',

Then I created the function to receive HTML child by child, checking the tagName and then looking up and applying the corresponding styles. All of this is wrapped in a useEffect() hook because we are gathering the QuillJS WYSIWYG Editor in a <form> and sent to the component after it has already rendered. It looked like this:

useEffect(() => {
  // Cleans up the text provided by QuillJS wysiwyg
  function styleChildren(children) {
    children.forEach((child) => {
      if (child.tagName === 'H1') {
        child.classList = quillStyle.h1
      if (child.tagName === 'H2') {
        child.classList = quillStyle.h2
      if (child.tagName === 'H3') {
        child.classList = quillStyle.h3
      if (child.tagName === 'P') {
        child.classList = quillStyle.p
      if (child.tagName === 'A') {
        child.classList = quillStyle.a
      if (child.tagName === 'OL') {
        child.classList = quillStyle.ol
        let listItems = [...child.children]
        listItems.forEach((listItem) => {
          listItem.classList =
      if (child.tagName === 'UL') {
        child.classList = quillStyle.ul
        let listItems = [...child.children]
        listItems.forEach((listItem) => {
          listItem.classList =
      if (child.tagName === 'LI') {
        child.classList =
  var jobDesc = document.getElementById('jobDesc')
  var jobChildren = [...jobDesc.children]
  // removed other code that doesn't apply to this post...

Gist of the Above Code

You can see it's an ugly brute force solution, but it got the job done. The initial struggle was not knowing how deeply nested the html elements would be. I looked for patterns on those nested elements, solved the problem with the nested if statements for the time being and moved on to other parts of the application.

The More Elegant Solution

A week or so later I encountered the same problem, this time while was updating my portfolio site. The HTML is provided via the GraphQL query and the gatsby-transformer-remark plugin. If you follow the standard Gatsby Tutorial with markdown you'll reach this problem as soon as you want to style any of the HTML provided from your Markdown.

The new function is an improvement on the original in two ways: with recursion and by abstraction. Let's look at the code and then talk about the solution.

useEffect( () => {
        // formats the Markdown
        function styleChildren(children) {
            children.forEach((child) => {
                let tagIt = child.tagName
                child.classList = blogStyle[tagIt]
                if(tagIt === 'CODE' && child.innerText.length > 15){child.classList = longCode[tagIt]}
                if(tagIt === 'CODE' && child.innerText.length <= 15){child.classList = shortCode[tagIt]}
                if(child.children) {
                    let grandChildren = [...child.children]

        let post = document.getElementById('post-data')
        let postChildren = []

Gist of the Above Code


This function receives HTML, and then loops over each child element, applying the appropriate classes that match the element. There are still two if statements for CODE elements, because I needed to enable horizontal scrolling on mobile screens. Aside from that we've removed all the other if statements and replaced them with a single if that checks if the child element itself has children.


The first improvement is the abstraction of the tags themselves. Previously there were a series of if statements to check if a tag matched a type (e.g. H1) and if so, it looked up the list of classes that should apply to that tag. Here we've abstracted those away, by pulling out the elements tagName into the variable tagIt from there it applies the appropriate classes by looking up the corresponding tag in the object of classes I called quillStyle. Now, we no longer care what the tag is specifically, this code is far less repetitive than before.


In our long list of if statements in the first solution, some included another nested if statement for the tags that were possible child elements. That's was the main weakness of the original solution. Only in the circumstances that you know every element that could be nested would you be able to cover all the possibilities. Instead of trying to explicitly account for those elements, we've made use of a recursive function (a function that calls itself) if the element itself has children. Now we can check the full list of possible elements we declare in our style object to any nested depth, by spreading the child elements into their own variable, grandChildren and calling the styleChildren() function again. This solution allows us to not worry about what elements could be children, grandchildren, etc, and instead spend our time worrying about the styling of elements by type. Which is far more manageable.

How I found the solution

When the problem arose for the second time, I had the confidence of already having solved the problem, knowing I could copy and paste the code I had written before. But with a couple weeks of space between them, I was now able to see the patterns I missed which led to the two major improvements.

Closing Remarks

First, I hope this helps someone else. I'd love to hear from you if it does! Second, if you have any feedback reach out; I'd love to hear from you.