Creating Custom Scalars

September 24, 2020


GraphQL fields can return lists and objects, but of course, they can also return singular values. These are called scalar types. A scalar in computer science represents a single variable, an atomic unit that can hold one value at a time. A lot of data for our apps falls into the scalar category: names, email addresses, phone numbers. These are leaves of the tree: lone values instead of objects.

GraphQL has a collection of default scalar types that you can use as values for any field.

  • Int: A 32-bit integer
  • Float: A floating-point value
  • String: A UTF-8 character sequence
  • Boolean: true or false
  • ID: A unique identifier (serialized as a string)

These scalars are suitable for the majority of situations. When you're designing a schema, you can look at each field and consider: does this field return an object type or a scalar type? If a scalar type is best, you'll typically choose from one of the five built-in scalars.

Let's consider some song data:

let songs = [
{
id: '3123',
title: 'Toxic',
artist: 'Britney Spears',
topChartPosition: 1,
numberOne: true,
releaseDate: '1/13/2004'
},
{
id: '5325',
title: 'Poison',
artist: 'Bell Biv Devoe',
topChartPosition: 3,
numberOne: false,
releaseDate: '2/24/1990'
}
];

To represent this data, we'd create a Song type:

type Song {
title: String!
}

Setting String as the type for a song title makes a lot of sense: it's a small blob of text. It doesn't have to be formatted in a certain style. It's just a blob of text.

Then you'd continue that process for all fields in the Song object.

type Song {
id: ID!
title: String!
artist: String!
topChartPosition: Int
numberOne: Boolean
releaseDate: String!
}

This type is looking good, but hold on. What about releaseDate? That's a date. It has some semantic meaning, and we likely want to save this in a specific format. For that, we can create a custom scalar type.

Returning Custom Scalars

To create a custom scalar, you'll add a scalar type definition to the schema:

scalar Date

And set the value of releaseDate to Date:

type Song {
id: ID!
title: String!
artist: String!
topChartPosition: Int
numberOne: Boolean
releaseDate: Date!
}

Every field in our schema needs to map to a resolver, a function that returns data for a field. The releaseDatefield needs to map to a resolver for the Date type. With Date, we will be able to parse and validate any fields that use this scalar as Date types.

In the file contains your resolvers, you'll import GraphQLScalarType:

const { GraphQLScalarType } = require('graphql');

Then create a resolver at the root of your resolver object for Date:

const resolvers = {
Query: {
allSongs: () => songs
},
Date: new GraphQLScalarType({
name: 'Date',
description: 'A formatted date',
serialize: () => 'a date'
})
};

Within the constructor, you'll add fields for name, description, and serialize.

When we query the releaseDate field, the serialize function is called. With that function, we can return a whatever we want including a string that says "a date". Or more usefully, we could return a formatted date.

Consider the various ways in which we can represent a date and time as a string. All of these strings represent valid dates:

  • "4/19/2021"
  • "4/19/2021 1:30:00 PM"
  • "Fri Apr 19 2021 12:10:17 GMT-0700 (PDT)"
  • "2021-04-19T19:09:57.308Z"

We can use any of these strings to create datetime objects with JavaScript:

var d = new Date('4/19/2021');
console.log(d.toISOString());
// "2019-04-18T07:00:00.000Z"

Now instead of returning a string from the serialize function, let's convert the date into an ISO-formatted date string.

Date: new GraphQLScalarType({
name: 'Date',
description: 'A formatted date',
serialize: value => new Date(value).toISOString()
});

Now when we query the releaseDate field, the serialize function is invoked which converts the string to a Date object, then an ISO string.

The serialize function will be called anytime we query a field. Let's adjust this resolver to handle values that are sent as mutation arguments.

The addSong mutation takes the following arguments and returns a Song:

type Mutation {
addSong(title: String!, artist: String!, releaseDate: Date!): Song
}

In order to parse client input or arguments, we need to add two additional functions to the custom scalar resolver:

Date: new GraphQLScalarType({
name: 'Date',
description: 'A formatted date',
serialize: value => value.substring(0, 10),
parseValue: value => new Date(value).toISOString(),
parseLiteral: literal => new Date(literal.value).toISOString()
});

parseValue is called when arguments are passed as variables.

mutation($title: String!, $artist: String!, $releaseDate: Date!) {
addSong(title: $title, artist: $artist, releaseDate: $releaseDate) {
releaseDate # serialize() is called to return the date
}
}

Query Variables

{
"title": "Loading Zones",
"artist": "Kurt Vile",
"releaseDate": "10/12/2018"
}

The value is parsed from the JavaScript object, converted to a Date object, then to an ISO string. When we call serialize to return the date, we get a substring - just the first 10 characters in YYYY-MM-DD format.

parseLiteral is called when arguments are sent inline as strings, not as variables.

mutation {
addSong(
title: "Loading Zones"
artist: "Kurt Vile"
releaseDate: "10/12/2018"
) {
releaseDate # serialize() is called to return the date
}
}

We get the value from the AST, convert to a Date object, then to an ISO string. Then serialize is invoked the same way for the releaseDate field.

Custom scalars provide a way to assign semantic meaning to a field that returns a leaf or single value. If you're looking to save some time, there are npm packages that can help with this including graphql-scalars, graphql-type-json, and graphql-currency-scalars.

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